By DOUG GRAVES
HEBRON, Ky. — Any student at Conner High School in northern Kentucky can participate in FFA classes. But any student choosing these classes should be warned the school’s FFA advisor, Pam Zeller, keeps her students plenty occupied with activities.
“We keep the kids very busy; that’s just what ag teachers do,” says Zeller, who has been at the Conner FFA helm the past 18 years.
In 2012 alone this chapter was busy with 19 hands-on projects, from working the Boone County Farm Tour, to its Extreme Petting Zoo to benefit the Adopt-a-Family program. The chapter of 100 students attended a leadership camp and rode kayaks down the Little Miami River for a team-building event. The group even sponsored an Ag Olympics and pig roast at the school.
“There’s 1,200 students in Conner High and just 100 in our chapter,” Zeller said. “Some schools in Kentucky have 100 percent FFA enrollment, but because we have such competition in Cincinnati and all the other opportunities a big city has to offer, our percentage is much less.”
In 1997, she became the first female agriculture teacher in the region. “I have to say, it was a difficult couple of years convincing the kids I could do the job, despite being female,” Zeller said, noting half of all FFA leaders in northern Kentucky are now female.
“We all work really hard for the students, but the male teachers probably don’t cry at banquets just because their ‘baby ducks’ are going off into the world.”
Zeller can recall when FFA had a different meaning for the previous generation.
“The days of throwing the ag kids on a bus and driving to a local farm to work are gone,” she said. “Nor do the ag students get pulled out classes to do something physical on the football field or to simply set up chairs for assemblies.
“While those are probably fond memories for these kids’ parents, the post-secondary opportunities that are available to students today require that they spend time absorbing the information which will help them be more competitive and employable in the real world.”
The FFA program in Kentucky allows any student to take FFA classes as electives; however, students on the “honors pathway” course in Kentucky FFA can earn three credit hours for the Advanced Animal Science at Murray State University.
Similarly, students following the Plant, Animal or Leadership pathway and passing the Kentucky Occupational Skill Standards Assessment (KOSSA) exam can earn three college credits from University of Kentucky, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University or Morehead State University.
“Students are able to complete two to three of these pathways in four years, enabling them to earn nine college credits,” Zeller explained.
In addition to leading to college credit, she said FFA has the power to build and shape the lives of those involved with this lucrative program.
“The leadership opportunities offered by FFA can change a student’s direction in life,” she said. “It can increase their confidence to do better in their classes. It also gives them opportunities to fulfill that difficult section on their résumés, that section we call experience.
“FFA gives them a position ahead of the person they are competing against for an employment position. All of this hinges on whether the students take advantage of the opportunities that we work hard to provide.”
According to Zeller, there are more than $1 million in scholarships available for any Kentucky FFA student who applies before the Feb. 15 deadline.
Last year the 19 hands-on events at Conner High’s FFA chapter were filled with fun, laughter and lasting memories. Zeller also hopes FFA prepares her students for the real world.
“Some of our students came to FFA because their parents did it; others, just see the fun we have and want to join in,” she noted. “Still others see the leadership and scholarship opportunities and want to get involved. Most of all, FFA complements and supports what the kids are doing in other classes.”