Marcus Larson/News-Register##Dayton agricultural teacher Mitch Coleman helps welding student Braxton Wheeler assemble a metal sculpture cattail for a fence they’re making.
Marcus Larson/News-Register##Dayton agricultural teacher Mitch Coleman helps welding student Braxton Wheeler assemble a metal sculpture cattail for a fence they’re making.
Marcus Larson/News-Register##Dayton agricultural teacher Mitch Coleman instructs students, from left, Jordyn
Lynch, Kayla Everett and Anna Forness how to seed plants in a new garden.
Marcus Larson/News-Register##Dayton agricultural teacher Mitch Coleman instructs students, from left, Jordyn Lynch, Kayla Everett and Anna Forness how to seed plants in a new garden.
By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

In Dayton, it's all about ag

Some want to learn to weld, a practical art they can parlay into a well-paying job or use in support of a hobby. Some come to participate in FFA programs that teach them leadership, public speaking or other skills. Some prefer to learn about and work with animals and plants. Some come because it’s a place where they feel a comfort and camaraderie they may not feel in math class.

For all of them, teacher Mitch Coleman said, the ag shop is a place to learn life skills like responsibility and teamwork.

“I get to know these kids well and I enjoy finding how they learn best,” he said. “I want them to become well-rounded for life.”

Coleman has been teaching at Dayton High since the 1990-91 school year. While agriculture and society both have changed over the years, he said what students learn in the ag/FFA program are not only still relevant, they’re more important than ever.

“It’s not just cows and plows anymore,” he said. “It’s public speaking, tissue culture, marketing, small engines, welding, greenhouse ...”

His former students agree — so much so that many members of the FFA Alumni Association pitch in every year to host a benefit dinner and auction that provides critical funding to the program.

This year’s event, the 25th annual, will be held Saturday, April 11, at the school.

Doors will open at 5 p.m. for registration. A silent auction will start at 5:30, dinner at 7 o’clock and an oral auction at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $10. They may be arranged by calling the ag shop at 503-864-2080, or purchased at the door.

FFA jackets, banners and other memorabilia will decorate the gym for the event. Included will be stories from about 20 graduates over the past 25 years, such as James Sharp, who now works for Price Waterhouse in Australia; Bill Highley, a project manager for Touch of Concrete; Megan Cozart, a member of a national champion ag sales team, who now works at Wilco; and others.

The meal will feature tri-tip, pork loin, strawberry salad, green beans, corn, cheesy potatoes and a variety of desserts prepared by alumni and Coleman’s wife, Ann.

She has been a prime supporter of both her husband and Dayton’s program since they first arrived.

“I can’t tell you how much my wife means,” said Coleman, who chokes up with emotion when he talks about his wife; his children, Dara, Mitch and McCord; and his students. “Without Ann, I couldn’t do what I do,” he said.

Ann and Mitch put together the first fundraising dinner and auction back in 1991. The alumni group soon took over the annual event, in addition to helping with coaching and chaperoning functions.

Money from the annual fundraiser became more and more important as school funding tightened. Coleman said his budget for ag and FFA courses was generous in the early ‘90s, but the dollar amount has remained essentially unchanged, so has become increasingly tight.

“The district believes in the program, but there’s just no increase in funding,” he said. “Our program couldn’t function without the alumni or the auction.”

Without proceeds from the fundraiser, he said, students would miss many opportunities — including the chance to go to national FFA events, where they compete against students from all over the country. Many Dayton individuals and teams have won national titles through the years.

Dayton switched to semesters this year, which created a scheduling problem: With a limited number of class segments, now students can register for only one semester-long ag/FFA class a year, Coleman said.

To accommodate the many students who can’t get into the classes, he said, “We’ve had to be creative.”

Many now sign up for “supervised ag experience” outside the regular school day. Coleman oversees these projects, which might take the form of raising market lambs or running a landscaping company.

Supervised projects can be extremely beneficial, Coleman said. For instance, he said, 2013 graduate Nate Tompkins did a welding project while in high school, perfecting his basic welding skills in class and using them after school in his dad’s shop, Reber & Son Welding.

Tompkins won the national proficiency award in metal fabrication. Now he welds professionally for the family firm.

“That kind of success can be true with all the projects,” the teacher said. “My job is to supervise them and help them be successful.”

Projects, which offer hands-on experience, are one of three segments that go into the ag/FFA program at Dayton High, Coleman said. Classroom studies are another segment, and the third is the FFA leadership, public speaking and career skills program.

All three overlap, he said. “I teach it,” he said. “They demonstrate it in a competition and in the real world.”

In many ways, Coleman said, the new assessments being introduced nationally this year, Smarter Balance, fit right in with the way ag/FFA classes work.

The tests ask students to demonstrate their knowledge and how they arrived at conclusions. “My kids understand demonstration as well as theory,” he said.

In order to lead his classes and supervise projects, Coleman must be a jack-of-all-trades. He doesn’t have to be a master, though; just skilled enough to be able to teach and guide his students.

“I’m not afraid to say I don’t know,” he said. “And I want to keep learning.”

When he started, for instance, he wasn’t very good at welding. Over the years, his skills have increased -- now he’s very good at oxyacetylene welding. His students usually surpass him in arc welding, though.

And that’s absolutely fine with him. “Good teachers help kids become better than they are,” he said, noting that students develop pride and a sense of accomplishment from outdoing their teacher.

Sometimes, he and his students learn together. Recently, someone donated a 1939 tractor to the ag shop. “We’re getting it running. We’re trying different things,” the teacher said. “We can’t be afraid and not learn from it.”

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