OLFEN — “One thing the nine billion people on this planet have in common is that they all have to eat.”
That statement by Mark Pittman, teacher and founder of the FFA program at Olfen ISD, defines him and his approach to the program.
“I teach ag and ag is life,” he says as he shows me around his classroom. Motivational posters adorn the walls as well as educational posters representing various aspects of agriculture.
Typically it takes two years for an FFA program to receive a charter from the FFA but this is Olfen ISD. If it’s one thing that superintendent Gabriel Zamora and his staff have taught us, it’s that this 21 square mile school district, located smack-dab in the middle of cotton fields, is anything but “typical.” This oasis of knowledge and education is excelling in all that they do, every program, every teacher, every student and that includes the FFA program.
Talking to Pittman, you realize that the words average, typical and good enough do not exist in his personal lexicon.
“We had to build this program from the ground up to get a charter,” Pittman said. “We did not compete in FFA competitions last year because we had to establish ourselves as a chapter of the FFA.”
They did indeed establish themselves. Austin Large, the Texas Executive Director of Future Farmers of America, came to Olfen and interviewed the students himself. Pittman had eleven students in the program in 2017 and they each had to prepare the program to be granted a charter. Amy Dewall was student-president of the FFA last year and helped Pittman meet the myriad of requirements to meet FFA standards.
“We had to do a presentation that consisted of an opening statement, power point presentation and closing statement. It was a great experience and hard work,” Dewall said.
The current FFA student-president is Seth Brown, who credits FFA with helping him out in several areas
“I had to work on my organization skills when we were establishing the chapter last year,” Brown said. “I wasn’t the president but we all had to work together to make the chapter happen. Before last year, I couldn’t get up and speak in front of people.”
One year later and Brown not only speaks in front of people, he also does the morning announcements for the school each day. Brown is following Pittman’s example when it comes to his responsibility as a leader.
“I want to teach the other students leadership,” Brown said. “Leadership is not making them do everything themselves, it’s being part of all that we do, leading by example. I also want to teach them that it’s OK to be afraid, that we can overcome our fears and succeed.” Pittman and Brown work together closely.
“I rely heavily on the student-president to help me with the program,” Pittman said.
The day I visited the school was Friday. Olfen ISD has a four-day school week with Friday as an optional day. Instead of being off hanging out somewhere on his day off from school, Brown was in school working on college algebra and government course credits with teacher Timothy Parks, who is also the head football coach.
Pittman says one of the biggest hurdles was getting students to come to the school and enroll in the FFA program since they had never had one.
“It was a challenge, but we met the challenge and went from 11 students last year to 20 students this year,” Pittman said. “Gabe Zamora brought me here to build this FFA program and that’s what we’re doing.”
When he says, “building the program,” he is also referring to physically constructing it, as in pouring the slab and building the walkway for the building the school district bought for FFA at the end of last year.
Establishing a chapter such as FFA in a school requires dedication and leadership. As a veteran with two tours in Iraq under his belt who lives on campus and works on everything from the school buses to ensuring success in the FFA program, Pittman possesses both qualities in abundance.
Oh, he’s also the assistant football coach. Pittman requires hard work and ensures that the students shoulder their responsibilities.
“We don’t complain,” Pittman said. “I don’t allow complaining. We find answers, we come up with solutions, we don’t complain. We’re all family here and we share in this success of the FFA.”
In 2017 Pittman and the students had to establish by-laws, create a constitution and also a four-year plan to be granted an FFA chapter and thus did not have time to compete in FFA competitions. This year will be different.
“We’re going to work on livestock judging, agriculture, parliamentary speaking and more,” Pittman said. “We’ll all work together and decide what they want to compete in and the direction we want to go. The kids are self-governed, I’m just and advisor. Even when it comes to the FFA funds, they get to decide how we spend them. I can veto an ill-advised decision but I haven’t had to do that.”
While Pittman and the students work in the present, he has one eye on the future.
“I’d like to be able to build an ag barn where we can work on animal science, agriculture and have a district science lab,” Pittman said. “We have a comprehensive program. Part of my job is to give the kids real world applications for everything that they learn here and I strive to do that every day.”
Pittman lives what he teaches as he’s also a bee keeper and has several hives. Real world application.
If you’d like more information on the Olfen ISD FFA project, you can email Pittman at Mark.Pittman@OlfenISD.net. The FFA will be holding fundraisers throughout the year to raise funds for their chapter and for going to competitions.