Modeling Excellence

In the agriculture wing of Marshall High School, bright bulletin boards in national blue and corn gold adorn walls displaying pictures and calendar events. In the classrooms and shops, FFA students are welding, listening to instruction, taking tests and perfecting their projects.

These could be scenes from any high school ag program, but there’s something extra- special going on in these halls. In fact, the Marshall FFA chapter made history this fall when it became the first-ever two-time winner of the Model of Excellence award—the highest honor awarded to a high school FFA chapter by the National FFA Organization.

To earn this accolade, a chapter must “exhibit exemplary qualities in all categories of growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture,” according to the National FFA Organization. Marshall FFA received its first Model of Excellence recognition in 2015 and is the only chapter to have been named a national finalist for the award six times and to take the top honor more than once.

The 2017 award was presented Oct. 26 at the 90th National FFA Convention and Expo in Indianapolis. On the stage that day, the lights were bright, said Marshall FFA Parliamentarian Jacob Hall, and he couldn’t see beyond the first 10 rows in the auditorium full of 60,000 people. But when the chapter was called as the overall winner, he said it was a “whirlwind of different emotions.”

“Adrenaline, happiness, joy—it was such an amazing experience,” Hall said. “When we gave our presentation the previous day, we walked out of the room and knew that we’d done all that we could do. If it was ever our time, that was going to be it.”

So what is it about this FFA chapter that sets it apart from the rest?

One of the most marked differences is that any student enrolled in an agriculture class at Marshall High becomes part of FFA, so the chapter is 164 members strong. Because all ag students are members, they all have the opportunity to share ideas for their chapter’s program of activities (POA). That type of involvement gives the students a vested interest in the outcome of those activities, said Bailey Souder, a senior and FFA co-reporter.

“We stand out because of the way we set up our POA,” Souder said. “We make sure that every individual in FFA is involved. We give every class three activities to plan. By doing that, we get more kids excited about our activities and the things we do. It helps get the rest of our students [in our school] and our community excited, too. That’s what we want, because we genuinely enjoy everything that we do.”

This method ensures fresh ideas emerge every year, Souder added. Out of the 15 activities the Marshall chapter was required to include on the Model of Excellence application, 14 were new from the previous year.

“Pretty much all of our ideas are student-driven,” said FFA President Taylor Petzoldt, a senior. “It’s how we always have new, amazing activities because we get input from the kids as young as the freshman all the way to seniors.”

The Model of Excellence award may be just a symbol of recognition—a pat on the back for a job well done—but the true success is measured in the services the students and their advisors provide to their community and their peers.

One example is the annual Veteran’s Day assembly they host schoolwide, from pre-k to 12th grade. In 2017, the FFA chapter honored more than 500 veterans in the community. Another example is the “I Believe” campaign, in which the students made blankets, hosted a book drive and then donated the goods to pediatric cancer patients. Then there’s the kindness campaign, which focused on making the school a supportive place for everyone. Other service projects have included the “Operation Beautiful” campaign, which focused on positive self-image, and the “Little Lunkers” program, in which students taught preschoolers to fish.

The list goes far beyond simple application requirements, said Advisor Tyler Burgin, who works alongside three other ag teachers: Emily Reed, Matt Hart and Callie Dobbins.

“Some of the ideas are curricular, and some have ties to agriculture,” Burgin said. “In our community, even something like positive self-image has ties to agriculture.”

This program model gives the students a sense of ownership, he added, and their actions have impact.

“It usually starts with just one idea,” Burgin said. “Then we try to add meat to it—another component like ‘How can we reach more people?’ Or we look for an avenue that would make it unique or beneficial to the community.”

Marshall ag students say their FFA experiences have been invaluable to their education and future plans.

“I think the impact that FFA had on me is pretty consistent with all students,” Petzoldt said. “My biggest thing was gaining public-speaking skills and the confidence to take on leadership roles. All of our activities in some way or another benefit the community or other students, so it allows us to get a little more responsibility while giving back.”

Much like the many jobs in agriculture, there’s an array of skills members can attain through FFA. Students typically walk away from their experience in Marshall with a number of tools to use both on and off the farm, from public speaking to finance to welding.

“FFA is one of the only student organizations that can truly say it’s leadership and career readiness-oriented,” Burgin said. “Even if it’s just for networking or being able to list an FFA proficiency award on their resume or job application, someone in that office is usually going to know the value of FFA.”

Not only does Marshall FFA foster a sense of community and service, but students also describe a feeling of “home.” Their work has inspired more than one student to choose agriculture for their profession.

“I’ve decided I want to be an ag educator,” Hall said. “I have the best examples in the entire world right here at my school. They make me want to come to school every day, and the three hours I’m in my ag classes are going to be three good hours. We always know that they are going to be behind us 100 percent, and that’s what I want to be able to do. I want to influence hundreds of students throughout my career in becoming the next generation of agriculturalists.”

Not only does the national FFA organization take note of what the Marshall chapter is doing, so does the agriculture community.

“I don’t know if the teachers realize it, but the community saw that [award] and recognized they’ve got something going on that others don’t,” said Matt Riley, whose son, Jaden, helps manage the family beef herd as part of his FFA supervised agricultural experience (SAE). “They’re doing something right.”

Because the students have so much say in how the program runs, the program is constantly evolving, but Burgin said the goal is always more new activities and a bigger impact every year.  

“The program has a chance to change based on the kids’ interests,” Burgin said. “My sophomore class is very strong in SAEs, so they’re showing livestock and working in lawn care, while the seniors are very much speech and leadership kids. The junior class is a little bit smaller, but they want to be part of everything. They may try a leadership contest but also be on an agronomy team.”

No matter what the activity, it will always be about the students, Burgin added.

“If we didn’t have quality kids, we wouldn’t have quality activities,” he said. “Not everyone participates in everything, but everyone contributes to something.”

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