Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 5:13 PM on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Natural resources benefits students, community

Staff reductions cause two-semester course to be cut in half; expert, former teacher and student raise concerns

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

In an area rich with natural resources, it seems natural the high school would offer a class on the subject. It did. But not this semester.

Lack of staff has limited Homer High School's natural resource class to a one-semester course, raising concern among a former teacher, an HHS graduate and a state FFA official.


HHS student Megan Garoutte waters houseplants in the Homer High School greenhouse during the one-semester natural resource class offered during the first half of the 2010-2011 school year.

"Homer is a community that has been based upon natural resources, fisheries, tourism, environmental science, everything from cattle ranching to ocean ranching, timber, oil and gas, and it goes on and on. A lot of these young people are inspired to go into these types of careers," said Jeff Werner, Alaska's FFA program assistant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

FFA, known as Future Farmers of America until the late 1980s, is part of a local, state and national agricultural education program connecting students to more than 300 agriculture-related careers in the areas of science, business and technology.

"This program explores those career paths and benefits the community of Homer, where as most programs in Homer are training young people in careers to leave town. Why pick on a simple program that's trying to keep kids in Homer?" said Werner.

Al Poindexter, who taught at Homer High from 1974-1994, also questioned the course being limited to one semester.

"After 30 years of trying to keep it alive, they killed it again and it just kills me," said Poindexter.

On the Kenai Peninsula Borough school board from 2000-2003, Poindexter helped write the course curriculum. Poindexter owns Anchor Point Greenhouse, and recently was reappointed by Gov. Sean Parnell to the Agriculture and Conservation Board and appointed to the Natural Resources Conservation Board.

Poindexter's comments were echoed by 2010 HHS graduate Corinne Ogle. Thanks to a two-semester natural resources class Ogle took during her sophomore and junior years, she was awarded scholarships that have made it possible for her to continue her education. Ogle is pursuing a career in agriculture education as a student at Cornell University.

"Being in that class led me to participate in FFA, which completely changed my major at college," said Ogle. "I was going to be in early childhood education and now I'm in agriculture education."

While enrolled in the Homer High classes, Ogle said she studied aquatics, forestry, wildlife and soils. Participating in Envirothon, an event held during FFA's annual state convention, current issues such as biodiversity and waste management also were studied.

During her junior year, Ogle served as the reporter for the Alaska chapter of FFA. Her senior year, she was the state chapter president. That year, as well as this year, other state officers also are from Homer.

Ogle's involvement with FFA opened the door for leadership training in Washington, D.C., and opportunities to develop public speaking skills. During her senior year, Homer's FFA team, of which she was a member, placed second in environmental sciences competition at the national FFA convention.

The first part of this school year, Homer High School offered a natural resources class taught by Francie Roberts, a math instructor. The dozen students enrolled in the class brought life to the school's 50-by-25-foot greenhouse, filling it with vegetables, herbs, houseplants and flowers.

They researched the plants, identifying conditions needed for growth and built the boxes in which the plants were raised. Proceeds from a plant sale helped pay for the class, which also was supported by volunteer efforts and donations from local merchants and experts, such as Rita Jo Shoultz of Fritz Creek Gardens and Poindexter.

For the first semester of this school year, the course was run as an elective.

"It initially started at Homer High as a science class, but with a reduction in staff, we had to move it to a semester class under 'vocational,'" said Gee. "This class and other nonrequired classes are subject to staffing allotment, which is undecided until the school district and borough finalize next year's budget."

Student interest also figures into class retention.

"For example, we had a power mechanics class that we had to reduce by one section second semester because there was not a high enough interest in the class," said Gee.

He targets 15 as a minimum enrollment, but dipped below that for the first-semester natural resources class.

As in past years, the city of Homer will take over the greenhouse for the next few months, using it to plant 10,000-15,000 flowers that will beautify the city during the summer. Gee said space for a future second-semester natural resource class is being considered in the school's vocational wing.

For students to have membership in FFA, it is important they are enrolled in an agri-science or natural resource-related course, said Werner. A fall-only course makes it possible for students to develop their FFA membership, with follow-up in a related course.

"If a student is interested in commercial fishing, for example, in addition to a natural resources class, they might take welding or automotive technology or some other technology-based course, or even a science course, something that would edify the student's career path," said Werner."

One challenge in Homer is that FFA is seen as a club, rather than an avenue supporting classroom activities, according to Werner.

Poindexter views the class as a good fit in Homer.

"There's a big movement on sustainable agriculture. You can't have that if you don't have youth involved," said Poindexter.

Although already graduated from HHS, Ogle continues lobbying for return of a two-semester natural resources class. On a recent visit to Homer, she met with Roberts, researched material on FFA available at the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District and helped facilitate communication between Poindexter and Roberts.

"I'm trying everything I can to keep the class there. The opportunities for students to participate should not be taken away," said Ogle.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben. jackinsky@homernews.com.