The band is back together.

Two teachers who were high school classmates are excited to help rebuild the agriculture education program, now in its second year at Park Rapids Area High School.

The school’s first Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher Stephen Funk, hired in 2019, was joined on the PRAHS staff this year by fellow Sebeka graduate Amber Seibert.

Seibert previously taught for 11 years in the Fairmont Area Schools. Prior to last year, Funk taught in Mountain Lake. Both teachers were members of the Sebeka FFA club and state FFA officers.

“Amber and I have known each other since, literally, kindergarten,” said Funk.

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Even while attending different branches of the University of Minnesota, they sometimes participated in the same class via interactive compressed video.

“We’re both very excited to be here,” said Seibert. “It’s exciting to see a school district and a community value agriculture and seek out that opportunity for their students. I think that speaks a lot to what Park Rapids wants to provide for students – those hands-on learning opportunities, those career choice opportunities.”

Growing up in Sebeka, rising through the FFA and studying agriculture education in college, the friends often discussed the lack of ag programs in Park Rapids. “It’s pretty huge, to be able to be here now at the start of it,” said Seibert.

“We’ve always talked about, when we were serving as officers, how crazy it was that right up (U.S. Hwy.) 71, Park Rapids didn’t have a program,” Funk agreed.

In parts of Minnesota, he said, schools with lower enrollment than Park Rapids had two or three ag teachers. “So, we’ve always kind of kicked around that idea of, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Park Rapids ever got going, and they could have a multi-person department.’ And here we are, living the dream!”

Funk noted that within an hour’s drive of Park Rapids, one can find just about every type of farm operation – from potatoes, corn and soybeans to beef and dairy cattle, poultry and a growing number of hog farms.

“There’s everything here, if you want the opportunity,” he said. “If you go to southwestern Minnesota, where we were both teaching, there’s a ton of large operations down there, a lot of cash crops, a lot of corn and soybeans. But they don’t have the natural resources opportunities that we have up here.”

“One of the things we talked about was, if I could design a location to be able to incorporate all of the pathways of agriculture, Park Rapids would be it,” said Seibert. “Southern Minnesota has a lot of production, but my kids (in Fairmont) weren’t as connected with it because it was so large that their parents were workers but not necessarily owners. Here, we have the natural resources; we have the smaller farms. If we wanted to build a powerhouse, this is where we would do it.”

Not just sows, cows and plows

While agriculture is part of the CTE program, it isn’t all of it. Their current course offerings include Life Skills 101, Basic Plumbing and Electrical Wiring, World Foods, Nutrition in the Kitchen, Horticulture, Introduction to Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR), Career Exploration and Senior Capstone.

Also in its second year is Park Rapids’ revived FFA program. The blue-jacket organization, formerly Future Farmers of America, is now widely known by acronym only in recognition of students’ diverse career interests.

“It is not just sows, cows and plows. It’s not just farming,” said Funk. “The majority of FFA members, nationwide, are not from the farm. They’re town kids. But town kids have to eat, too. I think that’s one of the biggest benefits, is helping students understand where their food comes from and how it’s prepared, how it’s grown.”

Categories FFA members can sign up for, heading into their first round of contest later in October, include floriculture, milk quality and products, farm business management, agricultural issues, meats, crops, small animals, soils, general livestock, dairy cattle, nursery/landscaping, agricultural sales, poultry, horses, agricultural mechanics, and ag communications.

However, there are also many categories not obviously connected to farming, such as fish and wildlife, forestry, food science and technology, parliamentary procedure, extemporaneous speaking, prepared public speaking, employability skills, market plan and a talent contest.

Later in the 2020-21 school year, Seibert and Funk plan to offer similar course offerings, plus Minnesota Outdoors – learning such skills as building a fire and paddling a canoe – as well as Animal Science, Food Science and Junior Capstone.

“People don’t necessarily think of a cooking class as agriculture, but we always talk about, ‘Well, you’re cooking with agricultural products. You should learn to prepare it,’” said Seibert. “Food science is a quickly growing area of the agricultural industry.”

“The kids have clearly said that agriculture classes related to food is something they want,” said Funk. “They keep signing up for them. We added two more this year.”

Career readiness

“With capstone and career exploration, we can talk about leadership skills, because it doesn’t matter where you’re going to go,” said Seibert. “We need them (leaders) in agriculture, but we also need them in other areas, too.”

Regarding the capstone classes, the teachers described them as an opportunity for students to visit colleges, tech and trade schools; learn how to apply for admission; and explore financial aid opportunities.

“We decided that Junior Capstone was going to be, ‘Where am I going?’ and Senior Capstone was going to be, ‘How do I get there?’” said Seibert. “The idea, eventually, would be to have every junior and every senior cycle through that.”

Noting that some people describe topics they are teaching as “soft skills,” Funk said, “I think of those as the essential skills: the ability to shake a hand, the ability to follow up with a thank-you, the cover letter of a resume, getting along with other people.”

“I have a really good group of kids in career exploration right now, and every single one are saying, ‘Aargh! I haven’t thought about this! I don’t have a plan!’” said Seibert. “The first thing we did on the first day was say, ‘OK, let’s calm down. You don’t have to have a plan today. We’re going to talk about how to make your plan.’”

Funk acknowledged that they work a lot with Krystal Murphy, the school’s community career collaboration coordinator (4C), implementing and refining the “Panther Tracks” program, which connects kids with courses they need to prepare for their career and college interests.

“It’s been really exciting, having that position in our school at the same time as getting this program back up and firing, because a lot of that stuff blends together really nice,” said Funk.

Building for success

“It’s awesome that the community and school got behind giving these opportunities to these kids, because this year, Park Rapids students have access to 30 classes that they didn’t two years ago,” said Funk. “That’s really cool. And directly related to careers, directly related to those life skills that’s going to help them be successful. And it’s another opportunity for them to exhibit the other stuff that they’re learning in school.”

For example, he said, “We want to apply what they’re doing in math and put it to use in our farm business management class. We want to take what they’re doing in English and have a kid write an awesome paper for the World Food Prize.”

Speculating about ways Park Rapids ag students could someday tie in other coursework to plant sales out of a hypothetical school greenhouse, Seibert said, “There’s a ton of learning experiences that can happen with facilities like that … like if you wanted to do some welding decorations for the sale. Your business ed classes could help set up and run the financial piece of it. … I think that between Mr. Funk and I, we’re doing a good job of providing good learning experiences. We would just like the facilities to support the hands-on experiences that we would really like to give kids.”

Funk tied this idea in with PRoject 309, the school facility improvement project that has led to a bonding question on the Nov. 3 election ballot.

It’s about “what does the district want to see happen, and what does the community want to see happen,” he said. “The kids have clearly said that agriculture classes related to food is something they want. They keep signing up for them. We added two more this year. We’ve had kids doing that. Then it comes down to, what can we do for facilities? So, if we can possibly improve that a little bit … We’re holding our breath until after the vote, and then we’ll get to see what direction we get to charge really excitedly towards.”

Funk said that if the bonding referendum is approved, “one of the areas that’s identified in the plan is some new CTE space for more hands-on classes. One of the big pieces will be updating the kitchen. We only have three lab spaces in there, and we’ve got over 20 kids in some of the classes. So it would be nice to have six kitchens. … I think we could do that in the existing footprint. We just need to put in some more cabinets and countertops.”

He added that they could also use lab space for studying animal and plant sciences – someday, perhaps, including a greenhouse or grow lab.

Also, if the referendum passes, grades 7-8 will move from Century School to a new high school wing, making it practical for those students to engage early in FFA activities and ag programs.

“Now, in national FFA, there’s a lot of opportunities for seventh and eighth graders,” said Funk. “If we don’t get to see these kids until ninth grade, they’re a little bit behind the curve compared to some of the competition.”

“Some students have already made up their minds at that point, what they’re going to take, what they’re not going to take,” said Seibert. “When they see the world ‘agriculture,’ sometimes, they sometimes think, ‘Aw, it’s farming!’

“It is, but there are so many more skills that are involved in that. ‘I can’t take that class because I don’t live on a farm.’ That’s not what I’m teaching at all, here. We need a chance to get access to those kids before they decide that this is not for them.”

"Having FFA and agricultural education back in Park Rapids means getting to be a part of something my family was a big part of when they were in school and having many new opportunities," senior FFA member Allie Edelman said. "These new opportunities and classes are things that I feel most people need to take in their high school years to have life skills and be ready for future careers."