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Growing a ‘Farm Community’ Inside a City School

Bryan High School FFA studentsAgriculture education made sense, in concept, to Bryan High School educators. After all, one in three jobs in Nebraska is related to agriculture – a stat that is hard to ignore when you’re preparing students for future careers.

Still, it was hard to escape Bryan’s geography. Omaha’s city streets, chain stores and concrete parking lots seemed more natural to most Bryan students than the rows of crops growing down the road on the only farm in the school’s enrollment area.

“We could put a class in place, but that wouldn’t necessarily lead to something else,” said Rick Painter, a guidance counselor at Bryan High.

So teachers decided to take ag education beyond a few class offerings to create Omaha Public Schools’ only ag academy. They visited California to see what an urban ag academy might look like. Rick recalls the surprise expressed by some of their guides: “This is really backwards. You’re from Nebraska and you’re coming to California to learn about agriculture.”

Others offered their ideas and vision. Howard Buffett Jr., who originally approached state educators about the possibility of bringing ag education to urban students, asked that the academy include an FFA chapter. Bryan’s principal, Robert Aranda, said the academy needed to reflect the demographics of Bryan’s broader student body -- racially, economically and academically. The faculty insisted that the students demonstrate a genuine interest in the program.

What emerged was an agriculture academy, now in its second year, centered on leadership skills, career exploration and, as an added bonus, a greater sense of community. In their first year, academy students enroll in classes such as introduction to food, agriculture and natural resources, ag economics, ag geography and ag biology. In subsequent years, they take plant science, ag English, ag modern world history and more.  Students also are growing vegetables in two raised beds and will expand their garden to the nearby Fricke farm, possibly producing enough to one day supply the school’s culinary science program with food and have a farmer’s market. If they are granted permission by district administrators, they will raise chickens next year as part of an animal science class.

Teachers have been amazed at student interest in the academy. Incoming sophomores must apply and go through an interview to gain admission. For the academy’s inaugural year, nearly 130 students applied; because of space limitations, only 60 were admitted. The level of interest was about the same among the academy’s second incoming class.

Today, 60 of the academy’s 105 students will visit the Omaha office of Farm Credit Services of America. We welcome the opportunity to show students how a career in lending can serve farmers and ranchers. As Rick says, Bryan students used to think of agriculture as largely cows and plows. While a few want careers in ranching and farming, more see themselves being part of agriculture in other ways -- through animal management, medicinal herbs, marine biology, science and business.

No matter what their futures hold, their academy and FFA experiences will leave a lasting mark. Rick recalls taking a group of FFA students to a baseball outing last summer. It was hot, and the teachers told the students they could take off their FFA jackets. No, the students said, the jackets stay on. They are a proud sign of their place in the agriculture community.

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