Laton High School is neither large nor affluent. It has 175 students, about half are English learners and nearly three-quarters are low income. But the school in rural west Fresno County has achieved something remarkable among its San Joaquin Valley peers.
Nearly 100% of the students — 165 of the 175 enrolled — have joined Future Farmers of America, the venerable agriculture and leadership organization. The students compete against schools five times their size and still come home with first-place ribbons and trophies.
“Our students have grit,” said Kassie Dewey, agriculture science teacher and Laton’s FFA adviser. “They will do whatever it takes to get things done.”
Dewey, who is in her first year at Laton High, is one of three agriculture teachers at the school and part of the change happening to make agriculture the focus of the school’s curriculum. Already, Laton has replaced its traditional science classes with ag science and has encouraged participation in FFA.
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“I don’t think there is another small rural high school in the Valley that has done what Laton has done,” said Charles Parker, San Joaquin Region supervisor for California Agricultural Education. “Is it a risk to try something like this? Of course it is, especially with students who may not be interested in agriculture.”
Larry Audet, Laton Unified School District superintendent, admits that a few parents did not want their children involved in FFA because it is often perceived as just raising farm animals.
“But it is so much more than that,” he said. “The agriculture education program gives students an opportunity to develop their leadership and public speaking skills — they can learn about ag mechanics or record keeping. It goes well beyond showing an animal.”
Audet estimates that the high school is about three to four years away from an entire ag-based curriculum, but early indications are that the students have embraced the concept. FFA participation is among the highest of any school in the Valley, and the ag science classes provide much more hands-on learning.
“We want to be able to give our students the skills they need for life after high school,” Audet said. “We need to prepare them for life as much as we prepare them to take tests.”
Discovering new interests
Several students say FFA has helped them become better public speakers and opened their eyes to new interests, including raising an animal.
Twins Julisa and Melisa Velarde are seniors and managers of the campus farm. They happily feed the pigs, beef cows and any other animals that are being raised. The work may be tough and sometimes messy, they admit, but it’s something they enjoy.
“It feels good to be able to come out here and do this,” Julisa said.
Jesus Garcia, a junior, said he began taking an ag mechanics class and joined the farm power team because of ag teacher Johnny Lopes.
“I knew very little about welding, but it has turned out to be a really great class,” Jesus said. “You really do learn a lot.”
Freshman Isabel Garcia, who describes herself as shy, said the FFA’s public speaking team pushed her beyond her comfort zone.
“It really has helped me learn how to be more comfortable speaking in public,” Garcia said. “And it has helped me be more confident.”
Along with teaching skills, students say FFA has also provided them a sense of belonging. The competitive teams spend lots of time together, practicing and at competitions.
“It becomes like part of your family,” said Shad Menezes, a sophomore. “And for some kids that is really important.”
The students say that as part of being on an FFA team, they have also been given the chance to travel and visit college campuses. Dewey took several students to a Fresno State basketball game and along Christmas Tree Lane in Fresno’s Fig Garden neighborhood. For some, it was the first time they had been to either event.
“Some of our kids wouldn’t be able to travel outside of Laton if it weren’t for us, ” Dewey said.
Not only is Dewey their teacher, she’s also occasionally their ride home or the source of a meal.
“We do what we have to do for these kids,” she said.
Veteran teacher Tammy Pilcher, who has taught at Laton for 14 years, said FFA has given some of her students the confidence they need to do well in school and in life. She remembers one girl who was entering her first pig showmanship competition at the Big Fresno Fair. Although she was a natural, she was competing against 130 other FFA students from much bigger schools who had competed before. Despite her inexperience, the student won.
“She was in tears,” Pilcher said. “She never thought she was going to win, but she did and she earned people’s respect.”
No longer do other schools snicker at Laton High since they have become a force to be reckoned with. Pilcher is somewhat of a legend in coaching the farm records team. Her classroom walls are covered with plaques and trophies of all the competitions her teams have won.
“When our kids enter a competition, they compete,” Pilcher said. “They know about Laton.”