San Carlos students in the outdoor classroom which is the greenhouse. Courtesy Photo
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CVIT: Agricultural Science in San Carlos

San Carlos High School (SCHS) students are planting seeds, petting bunnies, sniffing basil, and eating radishes, some of them for the first time ever.

“I have always had a passion and excitement for educating the public about production agriculture,” says Kimberly Kerr DeSpain, AG Instructor and FFA Advisor at SCHS.

San Carlos High School is home to expansive agricultural facilities featuring a 5000 square foot greenhouse, a large array of outdoor raised beds, and a bright red sturdy chicken coop. The huge indoor space has room for projects and picnic tables, where students eat breakfast and sometimes lunch, looking out for the 11 rabbits that live there full-time.

“Students are automatically enrolled in FFA,” says Kimberly Kerr DeSpain. “The school pays the fee.” 

The CVIT AG program at San Carlos High School is a 3-year course of study. Currently, there are more than 80 students enrolled in the program. Students can earn an Agricultural OSHA certificate that is recognized in the industry. Seniors are offered iCEV, a Communications certification that prepares them for job applications and interviews. Plans for a Vet Tech certification program are underway. Kimberly expects a handful of her students will go on to pursue veterinary medicine.

PLANTS & ANIMALS

For Student Agriculture Experiences (EAC), students care for the plants and animals on campus. 

“Each student has a bed and something planted in it,” explains Kimberly. “Tomatoes, flowers, peppers, basil…”

There are experiments underway to compare different planting and growing techniques. So far, the greenhouse is the star, featuring a grove of tomato plants as tall as small trees. 

Duane and Kimberly De Spain. Courtesy Photo

The chickens in the coop lay eggs, sometimes. The fencing is being tested before more chicks move in. Indoors, there are 11 rabbits requiring care and feeding and an art project — name signs for each rabbit. 

The first rabbit, a Rex named Penelope, was gifted to the program complete with a cage and all its equipment. The next two, Holland Lops Max and Ruby were purchased by Kimberly and her husband and the rest came through contacts via Facebook. For now, the program is focused on the care and feeding of the rabbits — small livestock. 

“We may get into breeding,” Kimberly says tentatively, “but that can get really big really fast and I’m not sure I’m ready to bring that on.”

Rabbits, she points out, don’t take breaks for holidays or Covid shutdowns. They always need to be fed.

“If a zucchini dies,” she adds, “no one is too sad.” 

ABOUT THE INSTRUCTOR

Kimberly was doing outreach education for Shamrock dairy when someone suggested she should be in the classroom. 

“A lot of people come out of the industry to work in a CTE setting,” she says. “We have the experience of doing the work firsthand. “

Through continuing education, she added classroom management to her skill set and worked for Mesa Unified School District as an FFA Advisor and AG Instructor before taking on the role at SCHS, where she ran straight into the pandemic. 

“It was tough,” Kimberly says about being the new teacher online. “I’m a white lady with curly blonde hair… I definitely wasn’t born and raised here. I don’t know the culture and traditions.”

A fourth-generation Arizona native, Kimberly grew up on a Holstein dairy farm in Buckeye, Arizona. She had chores and responsibilities and lots of opportunities to work with different animals. Market hogs and sheep and lambs. Dairy cows. Market steer one year. She was raised to believe that each animal has a job, whether it be to work, provide food, or companionship. 

Tomato plants grow as tall as small trees in the 5000 square foot greenhouse on the SCHS campus. Photo by Patti Daley

“I raised lots of animals,” she says, “and only a handful that I got sentimental about.”

In 1995, Kimberly applied to become an FFA state-wide officer. Her career objective?  Teaching. She won the position and served 1995-96 as FFA Vice President. FFA leadership runs in the family. Two of her brothers served as state-wide FFA officers and her father, Jerry Kerr, also served as VP in 1968-69. 

“I’m here in the agriculture classroom because of him,” Kimberly says. “He taught us about farming. About leadership.”

When her father passed away in October, and Kimberly was abruptly out of the classroom, her students, without being told, washed the cages, watered and fed the animals in her absence.

“When students want to spend their free time here… for whatever the reason… that is success.”

CULTIVATING RELATIONSHIPS

“Relationships are just as important as the curriculum, if not more,” says Kimberly. 

Kimberly first met her husband Duane DeSpain when they were both in FFA, competitors in a public speaking contest. Now a chemistry professor at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, Duane has helped Kimberly clear weeds, install fencing, and put down steps across the wash. 

“He was in FFA at Stafford High School and knows and appreciates the program,” Kimberly says.

The San Carlos community is “incredibly supportive” and there is funding for anything that can be acquired through a purchase order. It’s people’s help she needs now. 

“Time and knowledge,” Kimberly says. “There is so much knowledge (native ways) that are not written down.”

This year the AG Science program collaborates with the Bio-Sciences program to combine areas of expertise. Chemical knowledge. Soil types. Function of watering and protection.

“It smells like pizza!” That’s how Kimberly Kerr DeSpain’s students describe basil, an herb uncommon in their culture. Photo by Patti Daley

An experiment will be conducted to test the impact of magnetic force on plants — does it help or hinder growth?

The University of Arizona Extension program also intends to run research projects in the greenhouse, a collaboration Kimberly Kerr DeSpain thinks will open up more possibilities for her students. 

Kimberly has also obtained seeds to grow micro plants through a friendship she developed when her daughter participated in a science program and won.

“My daughter actually sent micro clovers on a rocket to the ISS (International Space Station) through a program called Higher Orbits,” Kimberly explains. 

This year, the SCHS FFA program participated in the San Carlos Veterans Parade for the first time. Duane drove the truck, and six boys showed up on Saturday at 7:30 am to work on the float, and 17 students participated in total.

“More kids than I had space for on the float,” exclaims Kimberly. “Some had to walk alongside.”

They handed out 200 pounds of candy and American flags. 

 

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