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Following Animal Instincts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It promised to be a long day for Sunny Hills High School teacher Scot Worrell.

He’d already taught five classes, done the smattering of paperwork and phone-calling that comes with being chair of the agriculture department, and completed the chores required to maintain the school’s seven-acre farm and provide for the well-being of its 400 animals and scores of plants.

But one last task remained: playing midwife to a ewe.

For Worrell, who worked as a veterinary assistant during his high school and college years, the impending birth of a baby lamb represents what makes his work so interesting, and so demanding.

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“She’s been trying to give birth since about 4 p.m., so we’ll be here late tonight. I’ll probably come back at about 10 or 11 p.m. to check on her,” said Worrell, a 28-year-old Yorba Linda resident who has spent the last three years of a four-year teaching career at Sunny Hills High in Fullerton. “I’m managing this farm as if it were my own ranch. And I’m also the veterinarian. No two days are the same.”

As a relatively new teacher, Worrell said he still encounters looks of puzzlement from those who wonder about his choice of careers, considering the endangered status of high school agriculture programs in Southern California.

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state of California. It’s everywhere, but people in Southern California are generally numb to where everything comes from,” he said, sitting behind a desk in his cramped department office, housed in a portable building along with two classrooms.

Near the corner of his desk the books, “Weeds of the West” and “Poultry Production” are stacked. A photograph of a pink and gray piglet adorns the month of April on the wall calendar behind him. And a large diagram of an egg and its inner workings has been sketched on the blackboard of an adjoining classroom, visible through one of the interior windows in his office.

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“If you go north of Los Angeles, it’s a totally different story. Everybody takes high school agriculture education for granted.”

At Sunny Hills, enrollment in agriculture classes has climbed from 113 students last year to the current 225 students in the 38-year-old department. Worrell says he feels lucky to be part of the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, which has a long history of support for agriculture education. Five of the district’s six schools have agriculture departments, reaching a combined enrollment of about 1,300 students.

School boards in other districts have shown mixed support for agriculture programs. The 18-acre Costa Mesa High School farm was sold to the city in 1996 to carve out athletic fields. Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials decided to close down the farm after enrollment in agriculture classes dwindled to fewer than 50 students. State funding for high school agriculture programs is based on enrollment numbers.

“Ag is the most expensive program to fund in a school district,” Worrell said. “We have more machinery--we have tractors, we have trucks, we have buildings, we have watering systems, we have electrical systems--we have more facility maintenance for our projects than any other program. . . .

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“If you don’t have somebody in the right position saying, ‘Yes, it costs a lot of money, but there are students who need this program,’ then you’re going to get chopped.”

Worrell has strengthened his department by winning awards as an agriculture teacher and advisor during each of his three years at Sunny Hills High. The school’s Future Farmers of America chapter recently won a “superior” ranking for the third consecutive year.

“Here we are in the business of teaching kids how to choose a career they can succeed at, and California leads the nation in agriculture production, but we continue to have people who believe that we don’t need agriculture education in our high schools.”

Through agriculture education, Worrell says students are exposed to careers ranging from veterinary medicine and landscaping to agricultural engineering and economics. And even those students who do not pursue careers in agriculture are learning the real-world lessons of agrarian life, he said.

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“It’s really something to have a kid come down here and raise a pig for three months, feed that pig twice a day, clean the pen, medicate the pig if it gets sick, and then have this product that they have raised themselves. Whether it be animals or plants, they take this product, sell it, and they get that check with their name on it, rewarding them for all their hard work.”

After years of declining enrollment in local high school agriculture programs, Worrell says there is a resurgence of interest among students. But there are fewer than a dozen high school agriculture programs in Orange County, which he fears will disappear without constant vigilance.

“When the Costa Mesa High School farm shut down, it made me realize how vulnerable high school agriculture departments are--that my program could also be at risk. Teachers have to make the case for their programs over and over again. There are a lot of satisfying careers that students will never know about if these programs shut down.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Profile: Scot Worrell

Age: 28

Hometown: Mission Viejo

Residence: Yorba Linda

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Family: Wife, Lisa

Education: Bachelor’s degree in animal science, teaching credential in agriculture education, and master’s degree in agriculture science from Cal Poly Pomona

Background: Large-animal veterinarian’s assistant during high school, 1985-88; veterinarian’s assistant, Hacienda Animal Clinic, 1989; assistant to race track veterinarian, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, 1990; agriculture teacher, Covina High School, 1994-95; agriculture teacher and department chair, Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, since 1995

Education honors: Winner of the California Agriculture Teachers Assn. (CATA) award for outstanding young agriculture teacher in Orange County, 1996 and 1997; CATA award for outstanding 2-to-3 person agriculture department in Orange County, 1998; honored this month with the Outstanding Future Farmers of America Advisor award for the third consecutive year; his high school agriculture department was honored this month as a Superior National Chapter of the Future Farmers of America for the third consecutive year

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On agriculture careers: “Students can go into animal science, veterinary medicine, research and development, agriculture engineering, horticulture and landscaping, agricultural business management--the list goes on and on. Ag isn’t just cows and plows anymore, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Source: Scot Worrell; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times


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