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LA FONTAINE — With the lingering threat of COVID-19, plans for schools to restart this August, in many aspects, are still up in the air. Fears of the virus may cause many parents to consider homeschooling or virtual school options for their students.
Prior to the virus, Indiana Digital Learning School served Hoosier children in all of the state's 92 counties.
For them, social distancing and learning through technology is one of their strengths. And just this past year, a fifth generation farmer worked to bring a new opportunity to those students who learn from home.
Future Farmers of America (FFA) is a youth organization that prepares members for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success through agricultural education.
Students at traditional brick and mortar schools can join the local FFA chapter in their school district.
Up until this past year, students homeschooling or attending virtual school through organizations like Indiana Digital Learning School were not able to join FFA.
This restriction left those students out from the opportunities FFA provides, like access to local and regional conferences and competitions, scholarship opportunities and more.
Amber Lewis, a teacher and fifth generation farmer in LaFontaine, knows how important those opportunities can be for her students.
"That tends to speak volumes when we're looking for future employees, when we are out and talking to other farmers and other community members," Lewis said. "These FFA members are setting a high bar for other students and future competition that they are going to compete against to get that job."
Lewis teaches full-time for Indiana Digital Learning School and focuses on career and technical education in criminal justice and agriculture.
She also helps on her family's farm, Bowman Farms, in Wabash County. There they farm more than 8,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
She brings that hands-on experience to her virtual classroom and now FFA chapter.
Lewis was approached by school leaders to see about starting a chapter for Indiana Digital Learning School students. After many months of discussions with the board, their chapter was approved and now has 40 members from every corner of the state.
"We are engaging online through contests, promoting community service where the students are at," Lewis said. "So we are getting the kids ready now in high school for their future aspirations."
Lewis says with FFA, those aspirations don't have to be as a production farmer.
There are many avenues in the agriculture industry for students to pursue. Many of those jobs are in demand no matter if we are in the middle of a global pandemic of not.
"We tend to think about just the production farmer but there is so much nowadays with technology, with research, business," Lewis said. "So agriculture is really expanding a lot of different career fields, and so part of my mission and goal is to educate students on their options if they do have an interest in agriculture."
The chapter serves students in grades seventh through 12th grade.
One student who just completed her 10th grade school year with Indiana Digital Learning School is Emily Starr. She is now serving as the vice president of their FFA chapter.
She has been homeschooling since she was in second grade and says she also participates in 4-H.
But more than the agricultural focus, she joined FFA for leadership opportunities.
"To be a part of FFA for me is for the leadership," Starr said. "They promote leadership skills."
She is now actively working to recruit more students for their chapter.
Being a part of the digital chapter allows students with all different backgrounds and community experiences to participate and contribute ideas.
While they originally planned to host a few in-person meet-ups and camping trips this spring, the virtual chapter of FFA through Indiana Digital Learning is not slowed by the social distancing guidelines in place. After all, the "new normal" is already part of what makes them unique.
"We've done little competitions over the internet for the schools," Starr said. "We've done a coloring contest for the elementary school using farm scenes, a photo contest, we've done kindness cards so all over the internet."