By Kim Walter
STRASBURG - The Signal Knob Middle School Future Farmers of America chapter has raised the bar for chapters near and far.
It wasn't enough to just be selected as the top middle school FFA chapter in Virginia during the state FFA convention in Blacksburg last month. The chapter was able to beat all 181 middle and high school chapters in the state, and also was named the top overall chapter in Virginia in the star chapter contest.
Jaclyn Roller, agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at the middle school, said she'll never forget hearing her chapter's name and realizing exactly what they had accomplished.
"I mean, I knew our application was impressive," she said Tuesday morning. "We did so many activities and projects that I couldn't even fit them all on the form."
FFA, the largest youth organization in America, focuses on educating students on the role that agriculture plays in society, and helps prepare them for entering higher education and the work force.
Roller said several years ago, before she was adviser, the chapter won best middle school chapter. However, beating out all chapters, including those with older and more experience students, is a first. They also will be entered into the national level competition in October.
After seeing that the chapter had ranked first in the three main competition categories -- chapter, student and community development -- Roller said she thought they might have a shot at the big win. She said being named the top chapter in the state always has been a personal goal of hers, but she didn't expect to fulfill it so quickly.
Even though Roller didn't grow up on a farm, she was familiar with FFA since her parents were involved in the past. Her father also taught agriculture for a number of years.
"I think that speaks to the kinds of students that can enjoy FFA and get something out of it," she said. "It's not just cows and plows anymore. Leadership, government, public speaking, farming ... there are so many opportunities for the kids that decide to do this."
The middle school's chapter boasts 174 members from sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Roller said the number isn't typical for a middle school chapter, since FFA membership isn't always offered to sixth graders.
Roller does set one requirement for students interested in joining FFA -- they need to be enrolled in an agriculture class. Even with that standard, participation continues to grow.
"I think the younger students hear our eighth graders talk about how much they love it," she said. "And our community is very familiar with FFA at the middle and high schools. All of us do so much."
While at the state convention at Virginia Tech, 16 chapter members were still competing. Roller said a lot of students wanted to attend, but she had to be somewhat selective.
"Some chapters will just pick a few students and focus on maybe one or two competitions, but I wanted them to cover as much ground as possible," she said. "Let's just say that most chapters used a van or a few cars ... but we needed a full on school bus."
Hannah Orndorff, 14, was the chapter's lead vice president. Upon entering ninth grade at Strasburg High School, she'll have the role of junior treasurer.
Hannah admitted that she had no background involving farming or agriculture, but she knew of FFA through her mother, who participated while in school. Hannah said she realized that FFA could help her grow in public speaking and leadership.
"I seriously had no agriculture background, but that didn't matter," she said. "I have so many opportunities ahead of me, and I love every minute I've spent in this organization."
She said she still gets chills thinking about the big reveal last month.
"We went backstage and there were so many congratulations, and plaques and pictures," she said. "It was such an exciting moment."
Most of all, Hannah said she enjoyed getting to know students from across the state through FFA. Even within the middle school, she had the chance to become close with students outside her grade and classes. She said the social and student development aspect of FFA is one of her favorites.
Ethan Gochenour, 13, had a different background from Hannah. He grew up on a "big family farm," and knew that FFA was something he'd want to do. While he enjoys the community service that comes with FFA, he said he looks forward to participating in tractor driving in high school, and eventually wants to be a farmer.
A highlight from the past year for Ethan was the chapter's participation in Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond. He said he enjoyed hearing veterans' stories, and the feeling that came with helping them have fun.
"I could tell they liked having us around," he said. "They were all smiles, and so was I."
Nathan McDonald, 14, also grew up on a local family farm. However, he joined FFA as a sixth grader for the leadership opportunities. He said he plans to stick with the program through high school and possibly into college.
As a ninth grader, Nathan will be a junior reporter for Strasburg High's FFA chapter.
"I really want to try and improve communication and collaboration between the high school and middle school chapters," he said. "Apparently, the membership levels decrease dramatically between eighth and ninth grade, but I want to help convince kids that the best idea is to stick with it."
Roller agreed, and said if a student is in FFA from sixth grade through graduation, he or she will be better prepared than a majority of other students -- both on college and job applications.
"From what I'm hearing, colleges and employers want a well-rounded kid. One that has the community service and leadership experience," she said. "FFA can help with all of that and more."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org