Employers in Clark County, Arkansas, need workers with hands-on experience and skills that can be introduced in high school
By JOEL PHELPS | arkadelphian.com
Wearing clothes soiled from a hard day’s work, Derek Helms left his farming operation Tuesday evening in hopes of hearing promising news. As the sun set over a cool autumn evening, he stood listening at the back of a room otherwise packed with educators donning business-casual attire.
Helms, a dairyman and soybean producer with a farm on the outskirts of Arkadelphia, needs a good farmhand: “Just somebody who knows some basics, like how to work on and drive a tractor,” Helms would tell us after hearing a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation aimed at introducing agriculture into the curriculum at Arkadelphia High School.
Agriculture hasn’t been taught at AHS since the 1980s. That course is set to change if workforce leaders and educators are on board with the launch of a Future Farmers of America program and some classes that accompany it. For some, it’s imperative that skills like carpentry and welding be taught in high school.
Local employers are constantly looking for trained workers, Shelley Short, CEO of the jobs-focused Arkadelphia Alliance, told the Arkadelphia Board of Education. A skilled, available workforce “is the number-one driver for where [companies] land,” said Short, who lately has been at the forefront of putting agriculture instruction in Arkadelphia classrooms. Short said having a pool of skilled individuals is more important to job growth and retention than all other factors in economic development — even the millions of dollars in incentives Clark County has to offer to prospective companies.
Short said she is committed to making ag instruction “a reality” in Arkadelphia, and has been in talks with the heads of numerous local industries, who all agree that ag should be taught to high-schoolers. Many, she said, are even prepared to help the school district financially or by providing materials and/or tools needed for the instruction.
Right now, the district is only considering the addition of ag instruction, but it’s likely the school board will favor the option. Tuesday’s presentation was an introduction to the possibilities, and district leaders don’t appear to have a timeline for making a decision.
Survey says: AHS students and parents interested in FFA
April Shepherd, career and technical coordinator for Dawson Education Service Cooperative, provided the bulk of the information at Tuesday’s meeting in a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation. Shepherd offered statistics from a recent survey and told the board what the district needs in order to make an ag program a reality.
Of 393 AHS students who responded to the survey, a whopping 62.8% hadn’t heard of an agricultural program until that point. After learning about it, 47% said they were interested in enrolling, with 39% saying “maybe” and 14% saying they had no interest.
Of the 108 AHS parents who responded to a similar survey, 77% said career and technical training are “very important” and 92% agreed that such a program is needed at the high school. Shepherd went on to provide numerous statistics related to the labor market and where agriculture falls into those needs.
What the district needs
What the district needs to start an ag program is slightly more than $11,000 (a state startup grant would cover 85% of the total $74,000), a building, a certified ag teacher and an active FFA chapter.
The district, Shepherd said, would have the option of easing into ag learning. A 9th grade introductory course could be offered at first, she said, to see if there’s interest in the program. If the interest is there, more advanced courses could be added.
Following the presentation, board president Blake Bell floated the idea that Shepherd return for a public Q&A session; she was on board with that notion.
Ag goes ‘hand-in-hand’ with regional job market
School board member Matt Johnson told us later that he’s a “huge proponent” of offering ag education to students. Johnson sells dimension lumber for Anthony Timberlands. “We’re in a huge forestry area,” Johnson told us, so giving students the option of ag-related coursework “fits hand-in-hand” with employers’ needs. Preparing students for trades like logging, he added, is essential to keeping future generations close to home.
An FFA program could also be a marketing tool for attracting families to the district. “A lot of our school districts around us offer it,” Johnson said. “In this day and age of School Choice, we have to be competitive in drawing students in.” In the past, the district has lost students to nearby Centerpoint Public Schools, which boasts one of the most successful FFA programs in the state. Centerpoint is known for its meat processing facility.
Initial plans exclude animal, plant science
District leaders in Arkadelphia have said it’s likely that an ag program at AHS would initially include only metal working and carpentry; plant and animal sciences would follow suit later.
Johnson said he favors an all-in approach to incorporate the whole gamut of agriculture instruction, but is also OK with testing the waters first to get the program started.
Helms said he hopes the district will include all aspects of ag instruction — including the plant- and animal-based sciences — into the curriculum to ensure inclusion of the whole student body.
For now, district stakeholders will have to wait on a decision or discuss their concerns and ideas with administrators or school board members.
Helms was back at work Wednesday morning at the Helms Dairy farm, still short-handed but optimistic about the prospect of ag education at AHS. “We are constantly short on quality help,” Helms said. “I’ve got excavation work stacked up because I can’t keep help working, and farm labor is a struggle.”
An FFA program, he added, would be a sight for sore eyes and calloused hands: “We need it.”