Sacramento-area high school ag programs fear loss of funding

At Florin High School in urban south Sacramento, students raise chicks in a small shed at the back of the campus. Two 3-month-old turkeys stand watch over a fenced-in garden that borders the walkway between classrooms. Science labs are lined with tanks and cages holding fish, lizards, rats, snakes and hissing Madagascar cockroaches.

Seven miles to the south, dozens of Elk Grove High students converge after school on the 1-acre farm at the back of the school to clean out stalls and work with the animals. The farm has three barns, a hen house, a rabbitry and a greenhouse. There are 100 pigs, 25 lambs, nine market goats, 10 steers, 40 laying hens and too many rabbits to track.

“It’s so much more than agriculture,” said Mary Swanberg, a junior at Elk Grove High and one of 460 students in the school’s FFA program. “Members find a place in the (FFA) organization.”

The number of California students enrolled in agricultural programs has more than doubled in the past 20 years, said Bob Heuvel, manager of agricultural education for the California Department of Education. The organization once known as Future Farmers of America now has 76,407 students in 314 chapters across the state, according to FFA data.

But Heuvel and other FFA proponents are concerned that such momentum will be undermined if the state eliminates a $4.1 million earmark for agricultural education, as proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The governor’s budget plan rolls that money into a new school funding formula that allows districts to decide whether to continue spending money for that purpose. Advocates fear that district leaders will see agricultural education as a lesser priority.

“I don’t think it a trade that’s worth making,” Heuvel said. “(It is a program) with a proven record of growth and success. It dumbfounds me that we would just throw that away.”

The Agricultural Career Technical Education Incentive Grant was created in 1983 to help schools improve agricultural programs and to provide oversight. It helps pay for equipment, supplies, instructional materials and transportation, anything but teacher salaries.

“If that money rolls into the Local Control Funding Formula, there is no requirement to spend it on agriculture and certainly no requirement to meet program quality standards,” Heuvel said.

The governor’s proposal is consistent with everything in the Local Control Funding Formula, which is intended to give districts more control over funding, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance.

There is nothing in the proposal that precludes school districts from using the money to fund successful agricultural career education programs, Palmer said. Only a handful of programs continue to have funding protections like agricultural education, and most of those are required by federal law or the state constitution, he said.

“Accountability doesn’t lie with the bureaucrats in Sacramento; it lies at the local level,” he said.

Elk Grove High agriculture teacher Mike Albiani said money from the grant has been used at the south-county school to build a shade structure and feeders for the animals, as well as to purchase other equipment. If the money were cut, he said, “We’d have to cut back or try to fundraise.”

His students discussed the possibility of losing the funding as they cleaned out stalls last week. “My brother wants to raise a lamb next year,” said Katie Martin, a graduate of the program. “Is there going to be funding to do a lamb?”

Students from across the state expressed their opposition to the budget proposal by attending rallies and marches and by writing letters to Brown. The letter-writing campaign, initiated by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, has resulted in more than 10,000 letters sent to the governor.

Earlier this month, Salas successfully urged the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education to vote to restore the funding. But the budget process remains in its early stages, with Brown due to propose another version of his spending plan next month.

Just in case, Salas has introduced Assembly Bill 2033, which would provide $4.1 million in agricultural education funding. Although the bill isn’t likely to be passed before Brown releases his new budget plan in mid-May, Salas said its passage could persuade the governor to change course before the budget is signed sometime this summer.

California’s agricultural programs would lose much more than the $4.1 million in the grant under Brown’s proposal, Heuvel said. Under the current rules, school districts must promise to match the amount of grant money they receive, and they often use local funds or money from the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology grant to do so.

FFA programs have changed substantially over the years. Although students are still required to participate in an annual plant or animal project, the program no longer focuses on cows and plows.

The state began to make significant changes to the curriculum in the 1980s, when schools concentrated on helping students fulfill college entrance requirements, Heuvel said. More college prep courses were added to the curriculum. Students in the program now take at least one class a day in agriscience, ag biology, Earth science, animal anatomy, physiology, ag economics, floriculture and agriculture, among other things.

FFA programs, however, continue to take a three-pronged approach to education: leadership, a required agriculture project and classroom studies.

Agriculture is so popular at Florin High School that nearly half of students participate in FFA.

Anh Nguyen has won state and national FFA awards for her research on a little-known moss ball that can be used to absorb toxins in aquariums. Nguyen, a recent immigrant from Vietnam, is chapter president of FFA.

The aspiring scientist didn’t speak English when she arrived at the school in 2010. She didn’t know college was a possibility.

“I was lost,” said Nguyen, a junior. “It picked me up and gave me so many experiences – ag science, leadership, communication.”

Last week at Elk Grove High School, the students were busy shearing sheep, cleaning out stalls and putting show animals through their paces in preparation for May’s Sacramento County Fair.

Local FFA programs don’t necessarily produce many farmers these days, acknowledged Albiani and Florin High agriculture teacher Sheila Folan, but it does produce students who go to college and succeed in ag-related fields.

“We have this program that seems to work,” Albiani said. “Kids like it. Test scores shows it works.”