OTTAWA, Ill. — Members of the Ottawa Township High School
FFA are used to putting on their game faces. The tension on those young faces —
and on the faces of their parents — was on full display in the minutes leading
up to a statement by Superintendent Matt Winchester.
“Our agriculture teacher position would be vacant at the end
of this year, due to the retirement of current teacher Kevin Cleary. Mr.
Cushing, Mrs. Bankowski and Mr. Cooper interviewed four candidates for the ag
teacher position. I’d seek a motion to approve Sarah Timmons as agriculture
teacher for the 2014-‘15 school year,” Winchester read in front of a packed
After a motion and a second, the school board voted
unanimously to hire a new teacher — and thus continue on with the school’s
agriculture program and its FFA chapter.
The vote wasn’t without some discussion.
“I’m going to vote yes, but I was probably a no until we
went over the numbers,” said Bill Byczynski, school board member.
Byczynski said that the Intro to Ag course, a course usually
offered every other year, had six students sign up.
“Last year, the Intro to Ag had six students, six kids, that
the teacher taught for a whole year in one class. Other classes had 14, 15, 13,”
Cleary quickly stepped up to correct Byczynski.
“Intro to Ag didn’t go because it only had six students,”
Cleary told the board member.
“No, it didn’t go, because there were only six kids signed
up, so we couldn’t run it,” Byczynski said, agreeing with Cleary.
Cleary pointed out that Introduction to Agriculture, offered
every other year, usually has 12 to 15 students. Byczynski said that a larger
number of students will continue to insure that agriculture classes remain at
“As long as you guys go out there and get the support, I
think we’ll continue to have ag at Ottawa High School,” he said.
The students and their supporters applauded the board’s
decision, and several students said thank you as they made their way out of the
board meeting room.
The support for the school’s agriculture program and its
continuation was in full force at the meeting.
“In the last year, we’ve met at least a dozen times with
administration. It has been positive and educational for both parties. We
appreciate their time and efforts,” Joe Schmidt, a local farmer, father of
Ottawa senior Anna and president of the Ottawa FFA Alumni group, read from a
statement prior to the vote and at the start of the meeting.
“Tonight is decision time — do you vote to continue ag
education at OHS that has been in place for over 68 years or will the Class of
2014 be the last? We are committed to the future of ag education at Ottawa High
School. We ask you to do the same,” he said.
After the meeting, Cleary and his students gathered in the
hallway, and he said the vote came as a relief.
“I am relieved, and of course I was concerned. I couldn’t
understand why they were even considering it, with the tradition and with the
numbers being strong,” he said.
He said he was puzzled over Byczynski’s singling out the
Intro to Ag course numbers.
“We’ve always done fine not having big Intro numbers. I get
a lot of kids who have me for something else and then join,” he said.
Cleary said the certainty that the program will continue is
a positive note as he gets closer to retirement at the end of this year.
“The last thing I wanted was for it to quit when I left. I
understand budget problems, but this is the wrong area to cut in this
community,” he said.
Cleary said the ag program classes tend to have about 150
students a year in them and that the FFA chapter generally has some 30 to 40
students. At OTHS, animal science and environmental science are popular and also
are offered as science credits.
“I teach animal science, and typically I have three to four
sections of that. A lot of kids take animal science. It’s a science credit
course, so I get a lot of kids who aren’t necessarily farmers, but want to get
their science credit for graduation. I teach environmental science also as part
of the ag program, also for a science credit, and this year I had two sections,”
Students Applaud Decision
Students in the familiar blue jackets turned out to support
the program. After the vote, they voiced relief that the program and FFA would
continue at their school.
“With FFA, you get to go places and meet a lot of people. It
helps with speaking skills and in working with people,” said Katie Corcoran, a
“I wanted to save the program because people think FFA is
just for farmers when really there’s a whole other side to agriculture. I really
think it’s important for high school students to see that,” said Emily Barnard,
Anna Schmidt, a senior, said FFA helps students even after
they graduate from high school. Schmidt’s father is the president of the Ottawa
FFA Alumni group.
Schmidt herself raises and shows meat goats. She has made
two trips to Africa, the first in 2012 to Uganda, to provide goats to
“People seeing that you were in FFA kind of gives you an
edge up on things. I think because we were an agriculture-based community to
start with, it’s important that we continue to have an agriculture program here
at Ottawa,” she said.
Dakota Marti is a sophomore and has his eye on a career as a
firefighter. He trains with a suburban Chicago fire department in the summertime
and is trying to organize an Explorer program with a local volunteer fire
After hearing the calls for help and supplies coming in on
his scanner on Nov. 17, 2013, Marti organized a collection of cleaning supplies
for victims of the Washington, Ill., tornado.
Marti walked almost five miles from his home near Naplate to
get to the school board meeting to show his support for continuing the program.
“When I heard that they might not hire someone, it really
concerned me. I am relieved that they got someone else because now I know I’ve
got a group I fit into and people I know,” he said.