For Stephen Funk, starting this year in a new position as career and technical education (CTE) teacher at Park Rapids Area High School is a chance to do his dream job.

It may also be an opportunity for PRAHS to reach its true potential, using the area’s abundant natural resources to prepare students for career opportunities.

During the first trimester, Funk will be teaching sections of horticulture, landscape, world foods, introduction to agriculture, food and natural resources (AFNR) and forestry. Second tri: three sections of world foods, and one each of animal science and intro to AFNR. Third tri: horticulture, animal science, intro to AFNR, MN outdoors and, once again, world foods.

“World foods had the biggest response from students,” he said. “A lot of kids, apparently, would like to cook something and eat it. Big surprise, right?”

Funk graduated from Sebeka High School. “I had my dad as my agricultural education teacher there,” he said. “That’s what inspired me to get into it, I guess.”

He graduated in 2010 from the University of Minnesota Crookston, along with his wife Heather. He taught ag education for three years in Mahnomen, then moved to Mountain Lake, where Heather grew up.

“We bought the home farm – her grandpa’s farm, where her mom grew up,” said Funk. “Taught there for six years. Had a lot of success, a lot of fun. Had a couple of national forestry teams that placed second in the nation. That’s the best Minnesota has ever done.”

The couple currently lives at Itasca State Park, where Heather is a park ranger and campground supervisor.

Funk said he is thrilled to be “back up where there’s trees. I’m really excited that Park Rapids has school forest to utilize, and just the grounds – the fact that we have trees between here and the Century School – to be able to do a few things outside the classroom, which will be exciting for the kids, I think.”

Funk said he has experience teaching courses like world foods – “teaching kids about world culture and different production methods, and then preparing meals from that country” – as well as classes in wood shop, metal shop, forestry, parks and recreation, and more.

That blue jacket

As a student, Funk was very involved in FFA (Future Farmers of America), holding such leadership positions as state sentinel and region president.

“That’s kind of where my passion for forestry started,” he said. “I was on a state-winning forestry team. We took third at nationals, which was the best Minnesota had done up to that point. Then, my wife was on Minnesota’s state-winning team the next year, from Mountain Lake. That’s how we met, back in high school.”

He went on to serve as an FFA adviser while teaching ag education in Mahnomen and Mountain Lake. “I’ve had a lot of kids involved in contests, get their state degree, attend national convention. I’ve seen a lot of it,” he said.

Coming into a school district with no active FFA chapter, Funk said, “I’m really excited to have agricultural education back in Park Rapids. When I was serving as Region 2 president, when I was in Sebeka, I just – you’re looking right up the road, on 71, and you see Park Rapids, and you’re like, ‘Man, all the resources around there, and they didn’t have it!’

“I’m really excited to bring that back because I’m a student who benefited from FFA. I’ve had hundreds of students who benefited. I’m excited to see Park Rapids students have that opportunity again.”

Park Rapids High School has had an FFA chapter in the past. Principal Jeff Johnson, who has been with the school for 25 years, said the program was shut down before his time.

“FFA is a great leadership program,” he said, voicing optimism that Funk will get it going again.

Funk said the process of activating an FFA chapter is about a year long, but it’s definitely one of his goals.

Funk noted that ag studies connect with other subjects. “This is just another avenue for students to put the great things they’re doing in other parts of the building to use,” he said. “Farm business management is one of our (FFA) contests. You can’t tackle that unless you have some foundation math skills. It’s cool to see the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ concept, and we can do that together.”

He acknowledged it will be a challenge, going from a program whose teams received national recognition to “where kids haven’t seen an FFA jacket before.”

“That’s going to be challenging for me, to take that step back,” he said, “but also very rewarding to build it. I want to build an impressive legacy here at Park Rapids. We want that to be something that our school ends up being known for.”

Regarding the impact ag classes can have on students, Funk said, “Even in rural Minnesota, a lot of people lose sight of how their food gets from the farm to being on their plate. I think helping students to be educated consumers will be a really good piece that comes from this.”

He also quoted the FFA model: “Learning to do, doing to learn, learning to live, living to serve,” adding, “We’re going to try to do all four of those things. I think, if we can get to that ‘living to serve,’ it’s going to be a cool thing for the kids to take pride in their community.”

Showcasing careers

In view of the careers and fields of study that can grow out of agricultural education, Funk said he is looking forward to “seeing what we can give these kids to go out in the real world, and then seeing them bring it back to Park Rapids and have an impact on the community.”

He would like to bring in guest speakers to spotlight career opportunities that ag studies could open up. For example, he said, “We run a mobile butcher; here’s what we do. I’m an independent consultant to set up timber sales; here’s what I do. I’m farming soybeans; here’s what I do. It’s important to get that in front of these kids, to realize that there’s jobs related to it.”

“Career opportunities are wide open,” Superintendent Lance Bagstad said about what’s happening in the high school’s vocational education wing. “We need to have quality courses that are relevant to the needs of our students and for our workforce.”

Bagstad said Funk “is experienced, and has a lot of energy and passion for CTE. I think Stephen’s going to be a great addition to our staff, school, and community.”

“Stephen brings a boatload full of experiences with him,” said Johnson. “He’s had a very successful teaching career. He’s really the right guy, the right fit.”

Johnson added that the CTE program will expose Park Rapids students to many different careers. “It’s just a win-win.”

Funk has already received encouragement in that direction. Shortly after he was hired this spring, he applied for a grant from the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council, and Park Rapids was selected to receive $12,000.

“They’re going to help supply some of the tools that we’re going to need for horticulture, landscaping and forestry,” he said. “Since we didn’t have a program, that’s a big expense right away.”

Also, the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence donated 14 engines in June for Funk’s students to work on.

“It’s cool to see different people come to the table that want to see this opportunity for the students,” he said.