In 30 years of teaching agriculture classes, Ron Whitson never taught in anything like the new agriculture center the Mansfield school district just completed. And he says he never imagined that the district would name such a facility after him.
“I would have given anything to teach at a facility like that,” said Whitson, who taught in Mansfield from 1980-2007 before taking a job as a statewide career and tech coordinator with the Texas Education Agency.
The $3.2 million facility -- paid for out of the 2006 bond package -- includes a pair of 10,000-square-foot barns with configurable metal animal pens and wash areas, an 11,000-square-foot show arena, a 400-square-foot greenhouse, renovated metal barn, outdoor classroom settings, pastures for grazing, three ponds, crushed granite nature trails and a vegetable garden. The facility stretches over part of the 70-acre site that includes Tarver-Rendon Elementary and room for a future middle school.
The first resident, a 10-month-old Santa Gertrudis heifer named Miss Daisy, moved in last week and was busy christening the red clay dirt floor of her pen, while her owner, Irelyn Sullivan, a junior at Legacy High School, scooped poop and got her feed.
“We feel bad because we’re getting it dirty,” confided Irelyn’s mom, Shelly Cook. “The facility is just so doggone nice.”
Cook, who graduated from Mansfield High School in 1993, doesn’t remember having such cushy conditions when she took agri classes and was a member of FFA, but she does remember Whitson, who was her teacher.
“I think he’s very deserving,” Cook said of the district naming the building for Whitson. “It would be really great if it fills up with animals and kids.”
That’s the plan, says Keven Smith, the agri teacher who will be in charge of the new facility.
“If I’m doing my job, we should see our program grow in the next two to three years,” Smith said.
After being an agri and FFA powerhouse for decades under Whitson and his predecessors, the number of agri students and FFA members in Mansfield has slipped in the past few years, Smith ackowledged, with 330 in the FFA program, but only about 30 of those active. He thinks the new facility and the plan to work with the district’s science department to get younger students involved will help.
“I don’t think there’s another facility in the state that is going to utilize the science department,” Smith said. “We kind of visualize a working farm, like from the 1920s or ‘30s.”
In the new state-of-the-art facility, students from across the district will get some old-fashioned hands-on lessons about agriculture, from tending to animals to how their food grows in the vegetable garden.
“We want to let the kids know they don’t get their food from a grocery store, that’s where they pick it up,” Smith said.
He hopes to have the junior high students conducting water quality testing in the ponds, let elementary students measure the pumpkins in the vegetable garden, and renovate the windmill and use solar panels on the water pump so engineering students can see solar and wind energy.
There will also be district-owned goats, sheep, chickens and cattle for the students to see and use in their classes.
“Instead of just learning from a book, they will actually be able to see them,” said Cathy Hudgins, principal of Ben Barber Career Tech Academy. “In vet med, we will have students worm them and give them shots.
“We always talk about how we need to change with the kids,” she said. “This is taking it to a whole new level.”
The campus will be open to all the schools to hold classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (by appointment), but reserved for agri students on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All of the agri teachers are getting certified to drive school buses so they can take their classes from Ben Barber to the new facility on Retta Mansfield Road, Hudgins said.
Bringing in the science classes and students of all ages really appeals to Whitson, who has seen classrooms across the state in his new role.
“The whole idea of a kindergarten through 12th grade science education center is a very unique approach,” he said. “There are very few schools that have taken this step. It’s a real progressive way to approach teaching agriculture to other students.”
He also likes the facility layout, with small animals in one barn and large animals in another, incorporating the old metal barn that was already on the site and the overall appearance. Whitson said that as amazing as the Reed-Stewart Agriculture Center is at Ben Barber, they learned a lot after building it in 1998.
He remembers a very humble beginning in Mansfield.
“We had a piece of school property where Mary Orr Intermediate is now,” he said. “There was an old barn on that that we used as a project center. We couldn’t have more than a few animals and didn’t want to invest a lot of money into them. The Reed-Stewart center was a whole different level.”
And his namesake facility is a step beyond that, Whitson said.
“I am very proud to have my name on it,” he said. “I’ve told people all over the state about it.”