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Whitko Academy Reaches for the Top

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, October 16, 2020

With the launch of its new facility for career-focused pathways, Whitko Community Schools is striving for the top in agricultural education and FFA opportunities.

Not many high schools have an entire hallway filled with agriculture classrooms, not to mention two greenhouses and a livestock barn. That is simply one way in which Whitko officials are showing their commitment to teaching agriculture—and creating career opportunities for the students.

This is the new Whitko, and a familiar face is leading the FFA program. Yes, Roger Carr is back.

An open house for the public was held last Saturday at the new Whitko Career Academy in Larwill. Participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony were Whitko school officials and representatives from local foundations and economic development groups. Bruce Kettler, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture was also on hand. Following guided tours of the facility, VIPs and honored guests were treated to a banquet and Wall of Fame induction ceremony.

In September 2019, Whitko began a partnership with the 80/20 Foundation and the Community Foundation of Whitley County to launch the academy. The announcement came with an initial gift of $400,000, then the 80/20 Foundation came through with a $2.4 million investment this summer to remodel the former Whitko Middle School. For the past few years, the facility has been used as the office for the superintendent and staff.

"Not quite a year ago, we stood inside this building, and we kind of referred to it jokingly as the largest central office in the state," said Brandon Penrod, Whitko Schools superintendent. "We have some 120,000 square feet for the six people who worked here."

With a desire to better utilize the facility, Penrod and John Lefever of the Whitley County Community Foundation began discussing ideas. With support from the Whitko school board, the decision was made to create a school for career and technical education.

The timeline from inception to completion—the doors opened to students on Aug. 13—was a mere 50 weeks. As Lefever pointed out, the school building has been "totally transformed" and is furnished with high-tech equipment such as CNC (Computer Numerical Control) lathes, 3D printers, drill presses, plasma table and welding stations. These upgrades give students hands-on learning opportunities.

John Wood, chairman of the 80/20 Foundation, said the foundation hopes to fill the pipeline for skilled workers in the manufacturing industry, as well as to foster leadership, sales, innovation and entrepreneurism.

Agriculture is just one component of the new academy, which offers instruction in advanced manufacturing, business education and marketing, cosmetology, criminal justice, culinary arts, early childhood education, education, engineering and design, first responders, health science, precision machining and welding technology.

A total of 250 students pass through the halls each morning, and another 225 young people are bused there each afternoon, according to Joe Luce, director of the career academy. He said the students are genuinely happy to come to school each day.

"They run from the bus," said Luce, a former basketball coach at high schools in Marion, Richmond and Jeffersonville, Ind. "One of the things we do is, our teachers meet the kids outside the door every day. They stand here like they just won the sectional championship in basketball. Our teachers are just as excited as our kids."

He said the goal of the educational experience is to prepare the children "for jobs that will change their lives."

Approximately 70 percent of students in grades 10 through 12 have chosen to take classes at the academy during its first semester of operation. Introduction to Agriculture is a prerequisite for all eighth-graders.

To boost the profile of the agriculture program, Penrod and Luce earlier this year reached out to Carr, who taught at Whitko from 1988 to 2003, and asked him to come back and lead the agriculture program at his former school. Carr was excited about the opportunity and agreed to return but with one condition—that school officials also hire Matt Dice, whom Carr had worked with while both were teaching at Clinton Central High School.

Dice, who most recently worked as an Extension 4-H educator in LaGrange County, said he is looking forward to launching an aquaculture program raising both tilapia and shrimp. Students will also be performing high-level research in partnership with Purdue University and other institutions.

With two greenhouses, he said ag students will have access to a myriad of activities including planting, harvest and seed production.

One of the new additions to the campus is a $700,000 livestock facility, where students will raise beef, sheep and other farm animals.

While some of the logistics are still coming together, Carr and Dice say they want to not only grow the agriculture program but also increase the diversity of opportunities available to students.

There are two other agriculture instructors on staff, Kelley Sheiss and Heather Millett.

During the banquet, the Whitko Alumni Assn. named eight Wall of Honor recipients. They include: Georgia Tenney, long-time resident and Whitko employee; Bill Patrick, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach; Janie Fricke, country music star; RV Reed, long-time Whitko principal; Randy Dormans, director of animation production at DreamWorks Animation; Steve Nicodemus, 2016 Silver Anniversary Men's Team and 1991 Trester Award winner; Walter Maliki, former art teacher at Whitko; and Bill McVay, former agriculture teacher at Whitko.

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