By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Illinois’ Ag in the Classroom (IAITC) ranks in the top three – and possibly first – in the country in terms of teacher-student contacts, according to the elementary-level program’s education director.
“Sixty-one percent of all (elementary) education centers in Illinois had IAITC in their buildings last year, and over 31,000 teachers used IAITC in their classrooms,” said Kevin Daugherty of the Illinois Agricultural Assoc. (IAA), which provides funds and oversees IAITC activities in every Farm Bureau-hosting county.
“We reach a little over a half-million students with direct contact each year, out of the two million students in the state. We still have work to do.”
As education director, Daugherty, a former history and English teacher who now serves as president of the school board in his hometown of LeRoy, is charged with overseeing the education of students and teachers about the role of farming in the production of food and fiber, and how agriculture impacts their daily lives.
He coordinates some 40 summer ag education institutes for teachers and directs the development of classroom resources such as “Ag Mags,” ag literature, posters, calendars and other items and activities.
“There is no agriculture taught in the (elementary) schools anymore,” said Daugherty in addressing a group of educators, students and others at the Illinois Commodity Conference Nov. 20 in Bloomington.
“If we want to talk about agriculture in the schools, we need to talk about how it fits in with math and language.”
He displayed several children’s books with agricultural themes that IAITC promotes to teachers and administrators, including titles he said accurately reflect modern animal and production agriculture by children’s authors such as Cris Peterson, Gail Gibbons and others.
“These pieces of literature are great examples of how we can make agriculture fit into language,” he said. “You hear about how in schools today they don’t teach anything unless it’s ‘on the test.’ Every (school) in the state of Illinois is moving to the Common Core State Standards and away from the Illinois Learning Standards.
“There is room for (ag) in the Common Core. If you’ll notice the Common Core test exemplars, ag is present throughout.”
The IAA is partially supported through donations from Illinois ag commodity groups, agribusiness and individuals, enabling the organization to make contact with school administrators in all areas of the state.
“We have a system of folks at the county level, so there is someone in every (Farm Bureau) county who makes one on one contact with school administrators and teachers,” said Daugherty. “We’ve put 8,000 teachers in the past 10 years through a weeklong, high-intensity workshop where they actually go out and meet farmers.”
Teacher participation in the workshops was not as robust in 2012 as in years past, however, largely due to state budget cuts to schools, according to Daugherty. “School districts stopped reimbursing teachers” for the cost of the workshops, he said.
Books can only go so far in educating children about agriculture. The key to Illinois’ successful AITC program, he said, can be partially credited to the participation of the state’s farmers. “There are farmers out there who are willing to tell the story of Illinois agriculture. We’re very appreciative of that, because putting a real face to farming really helps,” he said.
“With agriculture, because nobody talks about it anymore, whatever is said the loudest is what everybody believes. Today, so much goes on in the world of social media. How do we introduce agriculture to the general public? They may not know what agriculture is, but they all have to eat.”