Going to school is supposed to be fun, filled with friends, extracurricular activities and—don’t forget—learning! Iowa’s educational system ranks among the top in the nation, and many families choose to live in small, rural communities because the schools are often fantastic. Within such a school system, one program in Central Iowa is rising to the top because students can’t get enough of it!

At Nevada High School, Kevin Cooper leads the FFA chapter and teaches a Vocational Agriculture (Vo Ag) class unlike any other. An instructor in his thirty-fifth year of teaching, Kevin started working in the Nevada Community School District in 1988, when the Vo Ag program was shared with Colo-Nesco Schools. In 2000, “Coop”—as his students refer to him—had grown the program so successfully he could no longer share his time and serve both schools. So, Kevin gave leadership of the Colo-Nesco program to another teacher and began to focus solely on Nevada.

Enrollment numbers at Nevada exploded over the next few years, and the Vo Ag program soon outgrew its space. A major turning point came in 2004 when a neighboring 3,000-square-foot building was donated to the school. It was quickly designated as the Ag Mechanics lab and filled with historic tractors in need of restoration. With the students’ enthusiasm leading the charge, Kevin continued to respond to their requests for more projects. For the past five years, the chapter has given back to its community by collaborating with Swanson Farms in Nevada, providing seeds they’ve sown in their greenhouse—most recently sweet potato and watermelon seeds—for Swanson to plant. The produce is then provided to the Nevada School District for the K-12 lunch program. “I’ve always loved growing things—more than just corn and soybeans,” said Andy Swanson, owner of Swanson Farms. “I’m thrilled to show the kids they can grow local foods that taste great and help feed our world.”

In 2015, the school made a $1.1 million investment in the program to add a 16-station welding instruction space and a greenhouse. “The more you do in the real world, the more the students understand problems and develop their best problem-solving skills,” said Kevin.

FFA chapters are often very visible in their communities during their annual fruit sales, but the Nevada chapter has grown into something more—a highly recognizable group of student leaders. For example, in 2016 a group of FFA students started the Student Movers program after they were asked to move a piano from one house to another. A few months later, someone else called and asked if the students could move their piano if they made a donation. Now, just one year later, the students have brought in over $5,000 in revenue from a program that was built simply out of kindness—out of kids helping the community. “If you’re out helping others, it will come full circle,” said Kevin. “The best way to improve yourself is to help others.”

Want to learn more about the Nevada FFA’s projects? Check out the chapter’s Twitter and Instagram accounts by searching for @NevadaFFA.

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