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Ventura County

Transfer Plan Could Uproot FFA Programs

Returning agricultural education consultants to Sacramento may lead to demise of high school Future Farmers clubs, critics say.

October 13, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

State educators are shutting down regional offices that support high school agricultural education programs, a move that some fear could cause farm-based curriculum and activities at campuses across California to wither or die.

Officials with the state Department of Education notified workers at four regional offices last month that they would be reassigned to Sacramento to make up for staff shortages brought on by budget cuts.

Those offices--on university campuses in Chico, Fresno, San Luis Obispo and Pomona--house employees who for years have worked with state high schools, coordinating regional contests, leadership conferences and other activities on behalf of agricultural education programs and Future Farmers of America chapters.

State education officials say those employees will continue that work in Sacramento, while taking on additional duties. But the department has been deluged by phone calls, e-mails and letters of protest from more than 1,000 students, teachers and farm industry officials. Critics argue that the quality of existing programs will suffer if the regional coordinators are not in the field. They question whether the move will result in the desired cost savings, because the positions are federally funded and not tied to the state budget.

And they fear potential long-term effects, warning that the move could result in fewer opportunities for students to learn about agriculture, in turn reducing interest in the subject and leading to the demise of campus programs statewide.

"It runs the risk of destroying California FFA and agricultural education in general," said Ventura High School agriculture teacher Amy Lewandoski.

Education officials say they are not backing away from their commitment to agricultural education or other programs that fall under the department's vocational education banner.

Patrick Ainsworth, assistant superintendent for the division that oversees such programs, said the department was forced to close the regional offices and reassign personnel in response to the loss of 100 positions this fiscal year.

Ainsworth's division lost 12 positions as a result of budget cuts and a hiring freeze. In addition, he said, five other staff members were reassigned to a new, state-mandated initiative aimed at boosting the academic performance of high school students.

"It was really getting to the point around here where we didn't have enough bodies to complete the fundamental work of the department," Ainsworth said.

Employees who had been working in agricultural education will continue to do so, although they may have to rely more on phone calls or e-mails to get the job done.

"I understand the concern: It comes from having a system that has been developed over many years and that people believe is working and want to see continue," Ainsworth said. "But I would find it hard to believe that the relocation of four individuals will cause the collapse of that system."

The regional consultants say they have not been told what their new duties will be or how much time they will have for agricultural education.

For the last few years, Jack Havens has coordinated activities for about 13,000 agricultural students in a region that stretches from the high desert cities above Lancaster to the dusty towns along the Mexican border.

Stationed at Cal Poly Pomona, Havens said he has been able to draw on university resources to stage teacher workshops and other professional development activities.

He has also been able to visit the dozens of schools with agricultural programs in that area, allowing him to help develop curriculum and provide hands-on technical support.

Havens said that while he expects to continue those efforts to some degree, it would be wrong to think that the same quality of work can be done from 400 miles away.

"It's absolutely a mistake," Havens said. "If you are going to improve schools, you don't do it by sitting in a cubicle in Sacramento. You have to be out in the schools working with teachers and students."

Havens and others say the lessons of agricultural education extend well beyond teaching youngsters how to raise animals or grow crops. Students develop leadership skills and public speaking techniques. They learn the value of agriculture to the state and the nation, while exploring careers in the rapidly expanding agribusiness industry.

With agriculture's increased reliance on technology and research, such exploration provides a base for pursuing not only farm-related jobs but also a range of other careers.

Future Farmers, established in 1928, is the largest student organization in California, representatives say, serving 56,000 students on 307 high school campuses statewide. It's also one of the state's fastest-growing student organizations, and has increased by as many as 3,000 members a year for the last half a dozen years.

Regional consultants have played a key role in that growth.

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