Ottawa Township High School FFA members and students in the school’s agriculture programs and their supporters await the word from the OTHS school board about the future of their school’s ag program. The board voted unanimously to hire Sarah Timmons to replace retiring ag teacher and FFA adviser Kevin Cleary.
Ottawa Township High School FFA members and students in the school’s agriculture programs and their supporters await the word from the OTHS school board about the future of their school’s ag program. The board voted unanimously to hire Sarah Timmons to replace retiring ag teacher and FFA adviser Kevin Cleary.
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 audience.

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,” he said.

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 the school.

“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.

FFA Backers Relieved

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,” he said.

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 freshman.

“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, a sophomore.

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 impoverished families.

“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 department.

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.