Nebraska Farm Bureau announces ag teacher assistance program to combat shortages
One of the highlights of the 86th Nebraska State FFA Convention was the announcement of an Agriculture Teacher Scholarship and Loan Assistance program funded by the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation. The foundation is a newly formed branch of the Nebraska Farm Bureau (NFB).
“Nebraska is facing a critical shortage of agricultural education teachers,” according to Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture. “The good news is that agriculture education and FFA are expanding in Nebraska. The bad news is that there is not enough agriculture teachers to keep up with the growth.”
“Competition in the market is pulling many students who are potential agriculture teachers into other fields,” Nelson continued. “This new program will help entice students to go into the field of agriculture education, and young teachers to stay on this career path.”
“Hopefully, this will help address the shortage issue and keep school-based agricultural education programs strong, vibrant and expanding to more schools,” Nelson said.
Ag education breadth
Nebraska Agriculture Education State Director Matt Kreifels said 20 percent of the current agriculture education teachers will retire, or are eligible to retire, over the next three years.
Currently 150 schools in Nebraska offer agriculture education to their students, and five new schools will start this fall, he mentioned. Another three or four schools may start this fall if they can find qualified agriculture instructors.
“During the past four years, 10 schools have had to put plans on hold because they couldn’t find qualified teachers,” he added.
“Unfortunately, we do not have the numbers of students enrolling in ag education that we need to fill those positions,” Kreifels said. “On top of that, of those students who are enrolled to become ag teachers, many of them take industry jobs and work for companies in the ag industry, rather than for schools to educate our students.”
With an average base starting salary of $31,000 in Nebraska, many agriculture education teachers struggle with entering a field where their annual salary is less than their student loan debt.
It’s a decision Fillmore Central High School teacher Kurt Van DeWalle could relate to when he entered the field 12 years ago.
In 2002, he and 10 other students graduated from the University of Nebraska with agriculture education degrees. Twelve years later, only Van DeWalle and three other of the graduates are still teaching.
“I’m still paying back my debt, more than I like to admit I’m paying on,” Van DeWalle said. “When I came out of college, yes, I was worried about a career. People also probably worried about starting a family, maybe buying a house. But those new chapters in our lives all take money. Sometimes those student loans take a back burner and get the minimum payment. Sometimes we’ve got to take a second job or leave the profession so we can take care of those debts.”
There are 7,100 students in Nebraska FFA and 13,000 students in agriculture education classes in Nebraska.
“The most critical issue facing agriculture education and FFA chapters in Nebraska today is the teacher shortage,” Kreifels said. “We were glad to see the Nebraska Farm Bureau take a leadership role to address this problem. With the help of industry and agriculture in Nebraska, we are confident we can solve this issue.”
The Agriculture Teacher Scholarship and Loan Assistance Program would support both pre-service student teachers through a scholarship program and in-service active teachers through a loan assistance program, according to Deanna Karmazin, executive director of the NFB Foundation for Agriculture.
The Student Teacher Scholarship Program is for students enrolled in University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Agricultural Education Teacher Education program. Students would be eligible to apply for a student teaching scholarship for the value of approximately one-half tuition, or $1,200 for the semester in which the student’s student teaching experience occurs, Nelson said.
The Teacher Loan Assistance Program is for current Nebraska agricultural education teachers who have existing student loans and have been teaching between one and five years. The amount of loan assistance would increase over the course of the teacher’s first five years in the classroom, thus encouraging the teacher to remain in the profession, he emphasized.
“We are starting a Capitol Campaign for the Agriculture Teacher Scholarship and Loan Assistance Program with the goal to entice more students to stay in Nebraska and teach agriculture and to keep agriculture as part of the curriculum in our Nebraska schools. Agriculture is the number one industry in the state and is responsible for one in four jobs. It’s important we encourage students to understand and value the hard work that goes into raising food in Nebraska,” said Karmazin.
“Funding for the program will initially start at about $12,000 for applying students and teachers in August 2014. With a fundraising component built in, we hope to ramp this up to a $35,000 to $40,000 program during the next three years,” Karmazin said.
The director is hoping to secure funding for the program through donations from industry, as well as the private sector.
“The program will be referred to as the SAE program, which is Securing Agriculture Education for the future,” she added.