FFA Enhances CTE Education at Pawling Middle and High Schools


When Pawling Middle/High School career and technical education (CTE) teacher Zsolt Vass started working in the district in 2021, one of his goals was simple: to bring the Future Farmers of America (FFA) program to Pawling students.

FFA is a national organization that provides schools with an intracurricular experience featuring agricultural education and career development in related fields. Its programming offers students opportunities to learn more about the world of agriculture through club membership and elective courses; participants enjoy leadership opportunities, real-world experiences and community service and passion projects. They can also earn scholarships and awards through their work. Districts in which the program is chartered enjoy myriad benefits as well, including professional development and enhanced curricula for teachers.

After three years of effort, Vass is proud to announce that Pawling is now one of those districts – and he could not be more thrilled.

“FFA is such a well put together program with so many resources,” he said. “We are going to have such easy access to grants, professional development, training and high-level professional contacts now. I’m so excited to provide this opportunity to our students.”

Vass began collaborating with Pawling’s Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Debra Kirkhus to bring the FFA program to Pawling as soon as he entered the district. He worked with the FFA at his prior workplace and thinks of it as an almost essential component of a complete CTE experience for students studying agriculture and related fields.

“I knew that we had to bring this program in from day one,” he said. “I saw how much the kids got out of it during my previous experience. FFA plays so well into the CTE program that we’re building here at Pawling.”

Pawling Superintendent Kim Fontana recalled this interest from his interview.

“I was sure Mr. Vass would find a warm welcome for his ideas and expertise here,” said Fontana.

Vass currently teaches woodshop at the high school in the new innovation lab and collaborates on various manufacturing opportunities for students. At the middle level, he teaches the introduction to agriculture class for all sixth graders.

This sequence continues with a plant and animal science class, which all students take during the seventh or eighth grade years. Vass also teaches two pre-engineering classes that are part of the district’s implementation of Project Lead the Way – namely science and technology as well as energy and the environment.

Adept at career and general technical education, Vass is particularly passionate about offering students exposure to tangible aspects of agriculture. He often brings his goats and rabbits to the school for his students to enjoy. He also oversees the middle school’s greenhouse, a room filled with student-propagated plants as well as a bearded dragon and young chickens that the students care for themselves. They even raise plants and live insects to feed their animal charges.

Following a comprehensive introduction in middle school, students have a foundation on which to grow. Those more interested in manufacturing or engineering are offered more sophisticated courses in those areas at the high school; those with a science or engineering bent may choose to build on their middle school studies and develop a research or design focus. Some students augment Pawling’s offerings with courses on local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) campuses. Vass also coordinates opportunities for students in the high school’s PRIDE program, providing them with exposure to landscaping, plant science and more to help grow the skills these learners need in the workforce and in life beyond high school.

“What Mr. Vass has brought to our schools exemplifies the types of experiences the Regents’ Blue Ribbon Commission is recommending all students have access to – namely rich, guaranteed experiences across career and technical education,” Fontana said. “We are so glad that our students have access to these programs and can develop a whole range of passions and interests from the exposure we provide.”

Kirkhus said that establishing the FFA program at Pawling has been a huge community effort. Community partners such as Cloverbrook Farm and Dykeman’s Farm have already been generous supporters of Pawling students and this program, providing field trips and hands-on opportunities.

“Mr. Vass and I had a number of informal meetings with local farm owners and community members to discuss the feasibility of this type of endeavor in Pawling,” she said. “There has been an incredible amount of support there.”

“This is especially important since supervised agricultural experience is a huge component of the program,” Kirkhus continued. “It’s been a team community effort from the start, and we are so grateful.”

She not only understands the assets that FFA brings to the district on a professional level, but a personal one as well. Her own adult daughter has worked and lived on farms for the past four years so Kirkhus has gotten an up-close perspective on the program’s potential benefits.

“It’s amazing how many aspects of the agricultural industry my daughter has encountered in her work – planting, maintaining machinery, hands-on building skills, veterinary care and technology,” she said. “She’s even getting a second degree in computer science because she’s seen how technology impacts agriculture.

“Students learn a tremendous amount about the hard work, commitment and care associated with this field, but they’ll also gain so many other transferable skills that can be used in a variety of areas in their future work.”

Vass, too, spoke emphatically about the multifaceted applied science foundation that FFA will offer to Pawling students.

“We can discuss the nuts and bolts all day, but the fact is that it plays into the individual student learning experience in more ways than we can count,” he said. “Kids who like engineering find out how Formula 1 cars work. Kids who love chemistry realize how it plays into plant growth. It’s not just about cattle and corn.

“The whole idea with bringing in FFA is that it’s helping our students to become more well-rounded learners. That’s really what education is all about.”