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The Untapped Potential of 4-H in Schools

Wednesday, March 18, 2020   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Brittany Sonntag and Nicole Jacobs, NM State Univ.
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In 2016, an in-school 4-H club was established allowing the youth to participate in 4-H activities throughout the school day. Through participation in the 4-H club, the school has seen an increase in attendance, a decrease in behavioral issues, and an increase student proficiency in Language Arts and Math. 

In 2016, the principal of Collet Park Elementary, Stephani Treadwell, observed that her students could learn a skill for a short period of time but could not retain it or generalize the skills to be used in other situations. Students would learn enough to perform well on unit tests, but by the end-of-the-year exams, these same students would perform poorly. During this time, students at the school scored 16% in language arts proficiency, absenteeism hovered at 23%, and student behavioral issues and suspensions were not uncommon. As she was looking for a solution to help her students, Stephani came across 4-H in Bernalillo County. Stephani’s theory was that, if students participated weekly in 4-H clubs, it would increase their engagement in learning, encourage them to persist through difficult tasks and ultimately, build their capacity to learning traditional academic content. Becoming 4-H leaders would also encourage teachers to change the ways they presented academic content and trust students’ abilities to handle increased levels of difficulty. Stephani contacted the 4-H Agents to discuss her thoughts and to begin the collaboration of making Collet Park a 4-H School.

In order to implement the program, the teachers would need to add the experiential learning process to their curriculum. Each teacher selected which projects they wanted to incorporate into their classroom on a day-to-day basis. Initially, teachers were worried that adding in the 4-H component would be just another thing added to their plate. The teachers were afraid of the expectation to monitor the 4-H program as well as their everyday requirements. Additionally, letting go of the “step-by-step” break down proved very difficult for the teachers. To assist the teachers, the agents provided a training with a demonstration on how to incorporate experiential learning into their teaching. By the conclusion of year one, the majority of teachers were excited about the impact 4-H had made on the students and felt that using the 4-H curriculum in place of their traditional curriculum actually made teaching easier. They felt there was less prep work involved and felt the 4-H curriculum allowed them to pick up the materials and teach. This was especially useful for the teachers when they were putting together substitute plans. Teachers felt the students were able to continue to receive high quality instruction, even in the teacher’s absence.

Initially, activities were limited to the last hour of school on Fridays. Each teacher selected a project to offer based upon their own hobbies and interest. Students then ranked their top three choices and were placed in a project based upon those ranking. For first and second grade, the students stayed within their grade levels for project. Third, fourth, and fifth grade students, however, were placed in mixed grade project classes. This helped to provide a sense of community throughout the school. Students no longer only saw their teacher as the only teacher they interacted with. Now, every teacher at the school is the student’s teacher. As a prerequisite for participation, teachers held students accountable by requiring them to complete all homework assignments, maintain good attendance, and behavior records. If not, the student would use 4-H time to make it right. This could mean having the student finish the work they were missing, or making an apology card for the bad behavior. This time, however, was not to be a punishment time. Once the student made things right, they were able to return to their 4-H project time. This taught students to be responsible for their own actions. Suddenly students were diligently completing their assignments and insisting parents get them to school on time.

The students at Collet Park participated in the full 4-H experience throughout the year. Each grade selected grade-level officers who run business meetings one Friday a month. During this business meeting, the students planned community service activities and decided on fundraising programs. The students were then in charge of making the activities happen. At the conclusion of the school year, each student was also required to turn in a record book and give a presentation to another class on their project.

Since implementing the 4-H Friday’s program, chronic absenteeism at the school has dropped from 23% to 7%. The principal also found that the number of students who regularly left early Friday afternoons dropped nearly 100%. The principal attributed this impressive decline directly to the 4-H school program. According the principal, “students did not want to leave. They are in the office crying if their parent comes to get them early. They want to be here doing the 4-H projects”. Additionally, the principal is seeing an increase in parental involvement in the school. Prior to 4-H Fridays, the school seldom had parent volunteers and their Parent Teacher Association (PTA) had less than 10 members. Within two years, the school increased membership in the PTA to over 40 members and now has 10-12 volunteers every Friday. Principal reported, “school is echoing with laughter” and parents reported, “Their child’s school is a great place to learn.”

According to the principal, behavior referrals to the office also dropped drastically. In fact, referrals as a whole dropped to almost zero; and of the remaining regular referrals, their frequency dramatically decreased. The 4-H program was so successful in helping to reduce behavior-based issues, that the teachers were able to handle most of them, without having to refer the youth to the office. One reason for this success, was an incentive built into the 4-H program where students who did not complete their class work or had any behavioral issues were not allowed to participate in that week’s 4-H activities until they corrected the action. Based on this incentive, the teachers reported that it made a significant change in the youths’ average work completion rate as well as their classroom behavior. The principal also noted that the addition of animals to the school positively changed classroom behavior and the behavior of the students who struggle the most with emotional stability. The principal was surprised to observe how a guinea pig could be a calming force in a classroom; remarking, “One student who struggled, and was in the office daily, was not seen in the office for three weeks because he calmed himself by snuggling with a ferret. Children who struggled with physically lashing out became gentle with baby bunnies and chicks. The surprise was that it carried over for hours after interacting with the animals”.

Additionally, before implementing 4-H Fridays, the students had a 16% proficient in language arts. After completing one year with the 4-H Fridays, the students were 47% proficient. The school’s principle noted that such an increase in the school’s score, in only a single academic year, to be substantial. The principal has also noticed an overhaul on proficiency levels for the students who have only been at the school since 4-H was implemented. In 2019, students in kindergarten through third grade showed, on average, 60% of students proficient in Language Arts and Math, with 40% of students not proficient. Fourth and fifth grade students, however, showed only 40% proficient in Language Arts and Math, with 60% of students not proficient. The principal attributes this positive reversal in proficiency level to the 4-H program. The students in Kindergarten through third grade have been participating in the 4-H program since they have been enrolled in school and have only been taught with the added experiential learning model. The younger students have been taught to rely on their experiences when they reach a problem they do not understand, which in turn has helped them to persevere though the state testing. The fourth and fifth graders on the other hand, have not been in the 4-H program since starting school, and therefore, revert to their old habits. Many of the students stated that they stress out on the state tests and forget to recall their experience. Further research is in progress to determine the exact connection between 4-H in the schools and proficiency levels.

The Bernalillo County Extension Office is entering their 4th year of the 4-H school partnership. Since the implementation of this program, it has spread to ten schools in the county as well as numerous other schools across the state. Many other states have expressed an interest in implementing this program in their state. The interest and involvement of in school 4-H programs from the community and youth alike only continues to increase as the office continues to expand 4-H Fridays to additional low-income schools. 


Jane Wright says...
Posted Thursday, March 19, 2020
What a great story! I'd love to know more about the kinds of projects kids chose from. Hats off to a visionary principal--a 4-H alum?--and teachers willing to give it a try.

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