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FFA Growing Statewide, But Especially In Urban & Suburban Areas

teacher in a classroom with students

Younts teaches in the same classroom he did forty years ago. Relics of the past line the walls. (Steve Burns, WTIU/WFIU News)

When Tom Younts first came to Hamilton Southeastern High School it was a very different place.

“The superintendent’s office was in a trailer, like a little modular trailer,” Younts says. “It was the superintendent and two ladies that helped him and that was all, that was the central office.”

Fast forward 40 years and the district — which sits just 30 minutes northeast of Indianapolis — is one of the fastest growing in the state. 

Younts teaches agriculture here. Housing developments and shopping malls replaced family farms years ago. You might think he would have trouble filling his classes, but that’s far from true.

“Things have changed,” he says, sitting in his original classroom that he still calls home. “Agriculture has changed tremendously from the production ag class I had when I first started and a lot of farmers here, to being no farmers. The last students I had that their parents made their living in farming was 2006.”

Shifting Demographics And Membership 

Despite having fewer students with direct ties to the farm, Younts says his membership is still strong. He and his co-teacher see about 200 students a day. 

Among them is sophomore Jack Tolle.

"Even if you’re not a farm kid you can still learn a lot from FFA, like where your food comes from and get a new understanding and understand how important it is," Tolle says. 

Today students are learning about small engines and plant genetics. Teachers say curriculum has changed over the years to reflect the changes in agriculture.

FFA now partners with Microsoft to prepare students for jobs that employers need filled. The company rented out a room last year at their annual convention in Indianapolis and teachers are integrating ag tech into their curriculum.

Students have evolved too. FFA membership in urban and suburban schools has grown 127 percent in Indiana over the past three years. Their peers in rural areas have grown too, but only by 21 percent. 

ffa-graphic-edit.jpg
With students moving away from rural areas, the demographics of FFA are beginning to change. (Zach Herndon, WTIU/WFIU News)

The organization says Indiana reflects national trends. They aren’t entirely sure why so much growth is happening in urban areas, but believe jobs play a big role. Large agricultural companies are seeking more and more new employees who understand the connection between technology and agriculture.

School Funding Formula's Unintended Consequence

Another explanation is money.

That can help explain the growth disparity between rural and urban schools. Indiana’s school funding formula assigns a dollar amount to each student. It creates problems in a lot of rural districts facing enrollment declines.

Christine White oversees Education and Development for the National FFA Organization. She says many rural programs are searching for teachers, students, and resources.

"Being able to financially support what they’re trying to do or the endeavors they’re looking at [can be difficult]," she says. "They may have to look outside of their community to find that support to help them continue to grow their chapter and the opportunities they provide for students."

Not far from where Younts grew up, and about 30 minutes south of Hamilton Southeastern, Josh Schonfeld has working in the greenhouse at Triton Central High School. 

josh-still-edit.jpg
Schonfeld pulls back a curton hiding lavender and thyme planters that students hope to sell. (Brock Turner, WTIU/WFIU News)

He’s trying to get it up and running so his students can sell hanging baskets to make money for the FFA chapter.

Schonfeld graduated from Triton Central in 2014 and is pretty representative of his students.

“I grew up on a small hobby farm,” he says. “We did 4-H and all that stuff. We raised meat and dairy goats, poultry: chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, pigeons…”

Schonfeld returned here from Purdue University. He started with just five students, but has begun to grow the program again.

“Now we’re sitting at 35 paid, with five more we’re working on getting in the door,” he says.

Those are the highest numbers his program has seen in at least five years. Schonfeld says he has a hard time imagining doing anything else.

“I’ve lived here all my life. This is my home,” he says looking around the classroom he sat in as a student just a few years prior. “This is the place I grew up that I want to raise a family in the future and I’m willing to put the effort forward in order to ensure the program stays alive.”

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