The Ottumwa Courier

March 26, 2014

Van Buren working to save its ag program

Courier correspondent

---- — KEOSAUQUA — Van Buren Community School Board has voted to table any decision on the future of its ag program until its April 9 meeting.

More than a dozen supporters of the program attended the board meeting last week. With declining numbers and a tight budget, the district has been exploring alternatives that would allow students to still take ag classes but perhaps share them with another school.

Administrator Mary Dawn Schuck told the board part of what’s driving the changes and the challenges in scheduling is a reduction in the variety of courses, especially in the core subjects.

“For example, in 2006-07, Van Buren offered 11 1/2 Carnegie Units of English,” said Schuck. According to Wikipedia, a Carnegie Unit is 120 hours of class or contact time with an instructor over the course of a year at the secondary (high school) level. “What’s offered and what’s required make a difference,” Schuck said. “Now we offer 6 1/2 Carnegie Units. That’s a lot of classes that aren’t available.” That increases the odds of “bumping” an ag class up with a required course.

“There is a little wiggle room,” she said. “There are some locally required classes that we can look at and add another English option which might give some flexibility, but that adds to your full-time equivalent. We’re looking at doing what we can to give the flexibility to the students.”

Parents, students and the instructor asked the board to keep the ag program within the school and find ways to avoid scheduling conflicts and try to strengthen the program, such as having some of the courses taught for college credit.

Mike Kisling was against sharing with a program out of the county. “As a taxpayer of this county, I don’t favor my tax money going to other counties,” he said.

Nate Adkins said Central Lee has more than 100 students in vocational agriculture classes. “I think if we could get the faculty and administration to tell kids that you don’t have to grow up on a farm to take vocational agriculture, you will have kids take the classes. I think it helps everyone,” said Adkins.

"I have two kids interested in vocational agriculture,” said Lisa Denny. “And they don’t want to go to Fairfield. My daughter chose her career path based on agriculture classes. Van Buren is an agriculture community.”

Garrett Filson, president of the Van Buren FFA, said, “We have a lot of fun in our program. We would have a lot more people in the classroom if it weren’t for the scheduling conflicts. If more people understood the program, we would have more students and they would have fun like we are.”

Jennifer Gardner, the program’s instructor said, “At the last board meeting, the board voted to request more information. Since then the administration has explored other programs. Superintendent Ewell has never attended an ag class and Principal Banks, for the first time in three years, attended a class March 4 for an evaluation.” Gardner said she checked into teaching college-level credit classes “and I was told I am very qualified to teach them. I have a B.S. and master’s degree.”

The state requires four years of English, although some students might get done with their English requirement sooner “if they doubled up their courses,” she said. She outlined the other requirements in science and vocational areas and also the challenges of infusing agriculture in a science class, as it relates to the common core. All this leads to problems the school has in setting up the master schedule and trying to minimize conflicts with other electives, Schuck said.

Secondary principal Chuck Banks went through the survey recently given to students. Out of 191 students, 164 completed the survey. Twenty percent of the students (33) said they are interested in taking ag classes. The number is broken down into the following grades: eighth, 16; ninth, 5; 10th, 9; 11th, 4. Thirty-eight percent were not interested in taking an ag class (63).

As the school board works toward a solution, board member Steingreaber said, “If we decide to table it again to another meeting, I would challenge my fellow board members to develop benchmarks on what they think is a successful program, whether it is enrollment or curriculum or whatever you feel is a good measure.”

Some parents suggested investigating the Central Lee program “and see what resources they have and if we’re starving Jenny’s program.” Bob Waugh said, “I would go with Central Lee, if that’s the best thing for the kids.”