High school's ag science program postponed for one year
Starting in the fall, Newberg High School is putting a year-long pause its highly regarded agriculture science program.
Save for Agricultural Leadership, all agricultural classes at NHS will be postponed until the 2023-24 school year. That means no general and ornamental horticulture, livestock animal science, companion animal science, vet science or metals courses.
However, students can still join and participate in Future Farmers of America and all its corresponding activities if they meet its one agricultural class requirement by enrolling in Agricultural Leadership.
Jackie Dannemiller, a special education teacher at NHS and a former agriculture teacher, has stepped up to teach the remaining agricultural class and serve as the school's FFA advisor during the transition period.
"Kids have a fabulous success rate with an ag program or any CTE program that can do hands-on learning, because sometimes their learning difficulties can get in the way (during academic classes)," Dannemiller said. "It's amazing to see how they're accepted and they can do things, and they're not feeling like they're dumb in high school … If you can have them show you how to make something, then they're proud. They can see immediate results and then it builds their self-esteem, so it's really good."
The decision to postpone the program was based on two main factors:
Ericka Lepschat, the most recent full-time agricultural science teacher, resigned in late May to take a job at Banks High School, her alma mater.
In an email to NHS families, the school district said it had sought "a replacement that had the same values and determination of Ericka that made her and the program a success," but were unable to find a qualified successor after a two-week search.
"When we initially posted the position and reached out to post-secondary partners, we didn't get a lot of interest in the position," NHS Principal Tami Erion said in an email. "As June approached, we made the decision to postpone until 2023 to provide more time for recruiting a quality applicant."
Many other Oregon high schools are also experiencing an agricultural teacher shortage due to the increased demand for CTE programs within the last 10 years, Dannemiller said.
"There's tons of jobs available if people want to quit their professional career and add on a certificate, they could probably get a job," Dannemiller said. "It's like a reality thing right now. There (are) not enough teachers to fill the roles."
It also didn't help that the NHS position became available right before summer, after most individuals in the school district's preferred demographic -- recent college graduates -- had already acquired jobs.
Another factor was lack of space. The CTE building, which houses the agricultural science program and other CTE programs, has been razed and will be rebuilt as part of the 2020 construction bond and won't be completed until September 2023.
For the same reason, several woods, metals and culinary arts classes will also not be offered next year.
"With this lack of interest (from applicants) and limited spaces for the agricultural classes to learn, we decided that to put a pause on the program was the best decision," the email to parents said.
As expected, the news frustrated some parents. Traci Sutherland, whose son is FFA president and a junior this year, sent a letter to the school board urging the district to "try harder" to keep the program running next year.
The letter posed several questions, including why parents weren't consulted in the decision-making process, why the classes couldn't be held off campus and why the search for a new teacher only lasted two weeks. Sutherland also noted that a year is a significant portion of her son's high school education.
"My son wants to finish his high school experience here in Newberg, but the increasing lack of opportunities here make it apparent that Newberg isn't interested in maintaining their educational programs and retaining high-performing students …," Sutherland wrote. "I understand that cuts sometimes have to be made and the bond construction complicates things, but I urge you to try harder. Keep the job open and find a way to maintain more CTE courses over the next school year."
Sutherland said later via Facebook that one of her chief concerns was that fewer courses would make recruiting for FFA much more difficult.
After sending the same letter to district staff, Sutherland met with Erion and then-vice principal Andy DeBois, which she said resulted in a good conversation.
"I'm not satisfied, but they were understanding and indicated that they had tried to find alternatives to canceling those classes but there was a lack of foresight and planning from the district about the building that were going to be demolished over the summer and then rebuilt," Sutherland said, adding that they "both committed to helping my son make the best of FFA in spite of the setbacks."
"We are open to all creative ideas when it comes to real world experiences for our ag kids," Erion said. "We have a great community and through our career center we plan to reach out to some businesses to see if we can generate interest in taking on students for internships."
Dannemiller said that the search for a new agricultural teacher, who will "come back to a new building and a new lab," is set to begin in January.
"When the building's ready, we're going to bring that program back stronger than ever," Dannemiller said. "It's going to be great."
Earlier this summer, the school board approved allowing the local FFA chapter to attend the national convention in October, where a student will be competing.
"It's not all doom and gloom," Dannemiller said. "I totally understand parents' concerns because if it were my kid, I'd be so bummed if they're really into it and that was their opportunity, but I just think if we do the best we can and try to give them as much as we can, it will be OK. It won't the greatest experience, but it's life, and we'll do the best we can."
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