Community Education News

Teens on tractors till ECHS garden

Janiya Hines listens as Agri Science teacher Rodney Owens gives instructions.

News Staff Writer

Dr. Rodney Owens, a teacher at Escambia County High School and a chiropractor by license and degree, was teaching classroom courses more related to his field of expertise a year ago. Now he’s teaching teenagers how to drive and manipulate tractors.
Owens, who now teaches Agri Science at ECHS, said he jumped at the chance when the school began looking for someone to take over the elective course.
“I love this,” said Owens as he kept a careful eye on a freshman who was carefully guiding an ECHS-blue tractor along the rows of the school’s community garden, tilling the soil. “This is what I grew up with, so this is home to me. I’m having a blast.”
Unfortunately, the agricultural educator pointed out, not a lot of the 60 students enrolled in the class share his enthusiasm over plowed earth and the machines and tools used to raise a food or market crop.
“Some of the kids will come out here and get at it,” he said. “I found out real quick, though, that the kids know they don’t need my class to graduate. If they don’t want to participate, I can’t make them, but I’m not giving them a passing grade.”
He said his philosophy is to focus his teaching time on those who want to learn.
“Out of the 60 kids who take the class, if I’ve only got 15 that want to learn something, those 15 are going to learn something,” said Owens. “I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I will do what I can for those who want to be done for.”
Janiya Hines, a ninth-grader, is one of those. And she is one of the few Owens allows to crank up and ease out the clutch of the class’s New Holland machine.
“She’s interested in learning,” he said. “She wants to get out here. And she does a pretty good job. I’ve got 60 kids in my class, but there are only a select few I trust enough to let them drive the tractor.
“Most of these kids have never even been behind a steering wheel, much less driven a tractor. Janiya has already demonstrated a pretty good aptitude to the mechanics of tractor driving and handling equipment, so I put her to it.”
The teen, not yet old enough to obtain a driver’s license, noted that the class has helped her gain confidence in her ability to handle a moving vehicle.
“Today is not the first time I’ve ever been on a tractor, but this class at school is,” Hines said. “I like it.”
Owens and those students willing to get some dirt on their hands and clothes and some sweat on their brow are planting a half-acre vegetable garden — which will include squash, tomatoes and peppers grown in the course’s greenhouse. The garden is situated on a patch of land that had not seen a plow since it was carved decades ago out of a forest.
He said he will use the garden as a teaching tool while he and his top students will also try to raise money to finance continued operation of the garden and greenhouse.
“Here’s something the kids have done,” he said, sweeping his arm across the garden and toward the greenhouse. “I’d like to make some money off of it, but the main thing is that (the students) are getting the experience.”