Junior high students relish FFA experience

FORREST, Ill. — In the late 1990s, Prairie Central was among the first school districts in Illinois to extend FFA opportunities to junior high students.

The PC Junior High FFA Chapter was chartered in June 1999 through the efforts of then-ag teacher Brad Maley and support from the administration, school board, students and parents.

The chapter has been under the leadership of David Rothert, junior high agricultural and industrial technology teacher and FFA adviser, since 2003.

Interest in FFA at the junior high level has remained strong and steady over the years.

“When Brad started there was quite a bit of interest. I’m not for sure where he started at as far as membership numbers. When I started here there were 40 to 50 members,” Rothert said.

“I’ve had years where I’ve had upward of 90 members, especially when we had a larger enrollment. I think the lowest I’ve ever had was probably about 38 members. Right now, with our declining enrollment and especially with COVID the past couple of years, I have around 40 members.”

Membership is a mix of rural and town students.

“Probably a majority of my FFA students are not farm kids. I generally see a lot more of the traditional ones (with farming backgrounds) who want to compete, especially the dairy cattle judging. I get a wider variety of students in the dairy product judging because everybody can taste milk, cheese and things like that,” Rothert said.

“A larger number of my students probably want to join FFA for the social aspect and social activities and are not into the competition portion of it, at least not as much as at the high school.”

There are several state competitions available for junior high FFA members.

“We don’t compete in quite as many as our high school chapter does. There are certain ones at the state level that have junior division contests. There is equine judging, dairy cattle judging, dairy products judging and I believe also poultry judging,” Rothert said.

“My students are interested in the dairy products and dairy cattle judging. That’s what we’ve competed in since I started here. We also used to compete in livestock judging. They don’t have state junior division livestock judging yet, and I think the main reason is the amount of space it requires, the number of animals and things like that.

“At the junior level, we’re also competing alongside high school chapters. Up until six, maybe seven years ago, when we competed at state as a junior high chapter, we were competing against the high school as a chapter. Then IHSA said we couldn’t do that, so they developed a junior division program and now we have some select contests for the junior high.”

Busy Year

The Prairie Central chapter is also active throughout the school year with special events.

“In the fall we get ready for the dairy judging and then we run into FFA Week. During FFA Week we have activities like dress-up days, milk chugging during the lunch hours, we do an FFA and faculty breakfast,” Rothert noted.

“We usually try to host a cookout in the fall to welcome especially the seventh-graders that are interested in FFA, and we do a closing cookout in the spring.”

Agriculture education is also part of the junior high curriculum.

“All of the seventh-graders are on a nine-week rotation. So, I pretty much see all of the seventh-graders one quarter during the year. I teach them a combination of agriculture and industrial technology. We do some woodworking and then we’ll talk about corn and soybeans in seventh-grade crop science,” Rothert said.

“When they get into eighth grade they have an option to take it as an elective. I teach eighth-grade agriculture and eight grade industrial technology. They are 18-week courses at the eighth-grade level. I teach a lot of animal science. We do some dissection of fetal pigs, we do welding and construction in the ag portion. We do other stuff in industrial technology that’s a lot more shop oriented.”

Career Switch

Rothert began his teaching career 25 years ago after a slight detour.

A native of Warsaw, a small Mississippi River community, he graduated from Western Illinois University and returned to the family farm.

“I went back into farming for a while before I got into teaching. I went back and got my teaching certificate,” he said.

Rothert taught at Ridgeview in Colfax his first year and then a position opened up at Prairie Central High School, where he taught for five years.

“Then we had declining enrollment and they were dropping the third ag teacher, which I was the third teacher, but Brad Maley, who was here was going to teach seventh-grade science and they asked me if I would take over the junior high program. I did that in 2003,” he said.