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Watch now: Ag Academy's FFA program named to top 10 in nation

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Decatur Public Schools Foundation Executive Director Zach Shields talks about the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy's growth and recognition for the FFA program. 

DECATUR — If the Dwayne Andreas Ag Academy wins the Future Farmers of America Model of Excellence Award they're up for, MacArthur High School senior Lillie Sherrerd knows how she wants to celebrate.

“Have a party,” she said, laughing. in 

The Ag Academy and the FFA chapters at both MacArthur and Eisenhower High School operate as one unit, with two separate programs, each with their own projects and focus, largely dependent upon the students' interests. They share upkeep of the Living Science Farm on the grounds of American Dreamer STEM Academy, where hands-on learning in growing crops and animal husbandry happen, and in the upcoming school year, will have 435 students.

Lillie described the Decatur program as similar to Boy Scouts, in that there's a large organization, in this case the Ag Academy, but with individual “troops,” or the separate FFA chapters at each school, allowing the students to pursue their interests while remaining part of the whole.

The Ag Academy began in 2018 with 202 students, recruited from Decatur's eighth-grade classes, and two teachers. With the addition of two new teachers, Hannah Sawyer and Becca Merrill, who join Seth McMillan and Delia Jackson, the program has grown and more growth is expected.

McMillan said he hopes to have 500 students in the 2022-23 academic year.

Small machine mechanics

Becca Merrill, a new teacher in the Ag Academy this year, demonstrates one of the small machines students will work with in their classes. Learning small machine repair is one of the skills students can acquire through the Ag Academy classes. Watching her are MacArthur High School seniors Trenton Horn, left, and Lillie Sherrerd. 

“A lot of other programs, it takes a long time to build those types of numbers,” he said. “We've been working on curriculum and laying out classrooms, and we have a large group of freshmen coming in. We did a lot of recruiting. Both schools worked on recruitment. We went in and really attracted a lot of eighth-graders. I think we see the program continuing to grow. It wouldn't be out of the question to look at another teacher in the future as we see those numbers continue to swell.”

The MacArthur students submitted the Academy's FFA for the award, which required an extensive application process, and it's already made the top 10 in the nation. From there, said ag teacher Becca Merrill, three finalists will be chosen, and the winner will be named at the national convention in October. With hundreds of FFA programs in schools throughout the United States, even making the top 10 is feather in their caps, though of course the students hope to win, too.

FFA, formerly Future Farmers of America, is a national organization for youth to prepare them for careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture. All Ag Academy students are members.

MacArthur's FFA, for example, has held several community service activities, including gathering masks and hand sanitizer for homeless people, and trick-or-treating for canned goods to donate to food pantries, a project they dubbed “Scare Away Hunger.”

“There are special categories you can fall under,” said Cordelia Mata, also a senior. “If you have something based on community service or building leaders in our own chapter, we would write (the application) about that.”

Senior Trenton Horn said he wasn't sure the Ag Academy was something he wanted to do when he first heard about it, but his counselor talked him into it.

“I fell in love with the amount of opportunities it gave students, and I fell in love with the connections you make,” he said. “My favorite part of ag is, it might just be another class, but for whatever reason, you know these people on a deeper level than I would, say, in my calculus class. That's why I stuck with it.”

Decatur Public Schools has launched the Prep Academy this year, where incoming freshmen can apply to pursue an associate's degree at the same time they are earning their high school diploma, ag teacher Delia Jackson said, and the hope is that the ag program can be part of that by providing some dual credit science classes connected to agriculture topics.

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter


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Students have held outdoor and online events, including raking leaves, a food drive for area food pantries, donating clothes to shelters, making dog blankets for animal shelters, a career success drive-through event, sales of flowers and produce they raised at the Living Science Farm, and doing their best to continue recruiting middle school students to sign up for Ag Academy next year.

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