Westwood Middle Teacher Says Students Rose to the Challenge
by K. MICHELE TRICE
With more than 250 students actively participating, the Westwood Middle School agricultural program was recently named the 2023 Ag Program of the Year by Polk County Farm Bureau. The Westwood Middle School program is under the guidance of Dawn Coatney, who is in her 14th year of teaching.
“The Ag Teacher of the Year and Ag Program of the Year are chosen based on the prior year’s involvement and accomplishments of the agricultural education programs within Polk County,” says Jessica Anderson, Assistant Director of Agriculture, Public Service, Construction/Industrial Career, Technical, and Adult Education for Polk County Public Schools.
“Those teachers and programs who show a desire to promote agricultural education by going above and beyond to provide well-rounded opportunities for students are chosen for these awards.”
Under Coatney’s leadership, the Westwood program received the Premier Chapter Award from the Florida FFA Association last year. The association also named the program one of “Florida’s Finest” FFA chapters, and they received a two-star National Chapter Award from the National FFA organization. According to PCPS, the school and Coatney will be recognized in November at the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis.
“I’m surprised everyone in Polk County couldn’t hear me screaming,” Coatney says about finding out about the award. “I had to read the email a second and third time before it sunk in.”
She says she quickly shared the email with other teachers and staff at the school. “Everyone helps keep the kids on track. It is a whole team effort here at the school.”
Coatney is the only teacher in the agricultural program at Westwood. She teaches an agri-science course that is an elective at Westwood as well as a high school credit agriculture course.
“Students that may not be doing well academically in other classes have the opportunity to earn high school credit in something matching their interest level,” she says. The program is very hands-on, which appeals to many students.
Approximately 250 to 300 students are involved in the program each year, and Coatney has a wait list of students interested in taking her classes.
“We just don’t have enough seat space for everyone,” she says. “I feel truly blessed that there are that many students waiting to get into this kind of program.”
“To me, to have that much interest from the kids says a lot to me,” she continues. “They want to learn where their food and clothing and products from the store come from.” Topics Coatney covers in her classes include: plant science, nursery landscape, woodworking, and animal care.
“I include a variety because not every kid is interested in everything,” she says. “I try to spark interest in every student so everyone can find their niche.” She says she tries to give every student a chance to experience something, learn about it, and potentially find a career.
“The Westwood Middle School agriculture program is a shining example of what we hope for every school in Polk County,” says Carole McKenzie, Polk County Farm Bureau Executive Director. “It takes school and community support and a dedicated advisor to create an ag program of this stature. We congratulate Westwood and Dawn Coatney on their wonderful accomplishments.”
Coatney is a seventh-generation Florida farmer who grew up on a farm and now has a family farm of her own.
“The biggest satisfaction is when you grow or raise something all the way through to the end, whether it’s an animal or field of crops. It’s the most humbling experience because things don’t always go right. You have to learn and adapt, and I try to teach that to my students.”
She hopes this award will spark interest and encourage more students to take classes in the program. She also hopes it will generate more visibility in the community.
“There are good things going on in the schools,” she says. “We have amazing programs doing awesome stuff with these young students. Students don’t have to wait until they are in high school to get involved in something.”
She encourages community members to volunteer in their local schools.
“My kids do the work,” she says. “They make it possible for me to be here. I am very proud of my students. We had a very difficult year last year, and despite that, my students rose to the challenge of making the best of it and doing their best.”
“I am honored to represent Westwood Middle as the ag teacher because all of the staff here support our students and program. This award is not just for the ag department, it’s for our school.”