In 10th grade, James Woodard was heading down the wrong path fast.
"But I had a dynamic teacher in our ag program that year," he said. As a young man without a plan, he was inspired by the teacher .
Then in 1987, he became an agriculture teacher in a Georgia high school. But Georgia's agriculture program was in trouble -- and perhaps heading down the wrong path fast -- just like Woodard back in high school. As a young, ambitious teacher, Woodard was anxious to jumpstart Georgia's program.
"As I began looking around to other states I was very jealous of what they were doing," Woodard told an Agriculture and Rural Development Committee session at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference in Oklahoma City July 12.
Teachers in Georgia didn't wait for the state Department of Education to begin the ag education transformation, no the teachers pooled their money together and hired a lobbyist.
"There's got to be strong legislators involved," Woodard said. And Georgia did just that. The teachers of ag education enjoyed strong legislative support, Woodard said, and that came from involvement of the teachers.
In the 2006-07 school year, 379 teachers were members of the Georgia Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association. By the next school year, that number was still growing and the association had 404 member teachers -- or 98 percent of the ag teachers in Georgia.
But more than that, the results of a completely rejuvenated agriculture education program helped test scores in Georgia, Woodard said. That was evidence of the integration of science and a focus on biotechnology with the ag education program in schools, Woodard said.
"If we’re truly going to build a pipeline for the ag industry in the future, we can’t wait until they’re in ninth grade to make that decision,” Woodard said. So ag classes expanded to middle schoolers.
Now the program has expanded by leaps and bounds.
“Our presence has gone from almost nothing to a really, really strong presence,” he said.
At the same session, legislators discussed community college efforts in the Southern states. Randy Smith, vice president for Academic Affairs at Western Oklahoma College and president of the Rural Community College Alliance, polled the audience about the challenges facing their community colleges.
The top challenges, according to Saturday morning's audience of Southern legislators, were funding, enrollment challenges and credentialed teachers.
“Those are some pretty tough issues. These are not always situations you can just throw money at and fix,” Smith said. “But community colleges do an outstanding job in serving their customers,” he added, and those issues must be faced for continued success int he Southern states.
Rural community colleges train the work force, Smith said. Sustainable, rural community colleges are vital, he added. "These colleges train these everyday workers that we need."