Agriculture Program Awarded Outstanding Middle/Secondary Program from National Association of Agricultural Educators

Since 1929, agriculture has been an integral component of education in Sycamore Community School District 427. The district’s agriculture program continues to grow its offerings and forward-thinking practices in the classroom and the field. In recognition of its success, the program was recently awarded the Outstanding Middle/Secondary Program Award for Region IV from the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE). The work of students, staff, and the community of Sycamore have all contributed to this national recognition. 

When agriculture teacher Mrs. Kara Poynter was hired at Sycamore High School (SHS) in 2007, she was the only teacher in the program and worked part-time. Since then, the program has grown to include three full-time staff members and expanded beyond the high school to reach students at Sycamore Middle School in an eighth-grade introduction to agriculture course. 

Growing a successful agriculture program is far more work than adding courses and hiring staff. “Our students and their goals have changed over time, so our program’s offerings have changed, too. It has been fun to see the growth — we have many more opportunities for students now than when I started,” said Poynter. 

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Educational Programs, Mr. Nick Reineck,  explained that this forward-thinking attitude has consistently made the district’s agriculture program first in line to try new approaches and techniques with students. “Blended delivery models, project-based learning, online opportunities, and various intervention models have all been things that our agriculture teachers have been on the leading edge of implementing,” said Reineck.

The program’s curriculum now includes courses in agriculture mechanics, welding, animal and plant science, horticulture, agriculture business, dual enrollment agriculture career, agriculture communication, hands-on leadership, and culinary leadership. Paired with two agriculture classrooms, a 20’ x 60’ greenhouse, agriculture mechanics, woodworking, and metals shops, a 40-acre plot, and a 40’ x 60’ barn to house livestock, students and teachers alike benefit from experiential learning. 
Thanks to these expanded opportunities, the program has also grown to be more inclusive. Students with disabilities at SHS can choose to take several of the recently added culinary and hands-on agriculture courses, which help with skill building and socialization. 

As an alum of the program, agriculture teacher Mr. Christian Thurwanger is well aware of the benefit of its growth. “My experience as a student in the program was great, but since Kara was the only teacher, there were fewer courses to choose from and fewer chances to pursue FFA awards. With three full-time teachers, we can now reach more students with more interests, and better advise them on award opportunities to showcase their work, including nationally,” said Thurwanger. 

Students in the program’s FFA chapter have taken these opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Particularly in recent years, this has led to several student accomplishments, including 44 state proficiency winners, one state officer, five section presidents, and four national finalists in supervised agriculture experience and agriculture science. And the chapter has been named a gold-ranking national chapter.  

Superintendent Mr. Steve Wilder credits the work of students, staff, and the community for the success of the district’s agriculture program. “There have been years of planning and dedication to develop our program to where it is today. What’s really satisfying though, is to experience how much the students and staff enjoy what they do — it’s truly hard work, but they do it gladly,” said Wilder. 

“The program’s contribution to our district and community has made Sycamore a better place to learn, live, and work. Perhaps most exciting are the long-term plans to continue growing and developing pathways for our students and additional community connections,” said Reineck. 

With a focus on the future, program staff will continue to expand its offerings in dual enrollment, cross-curricular, and inclusive opportunities. And staff will next travel to the NAAE National Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada from November 29 - December 3, 2022, to accept their award.