Dedication & Commitment

3 Ag Teachers Leave Lasting Legacies


From 2001 to 2013, David Byrd saw firsthand the amount of dedication, attention, and genuine care that Donna Oliver, Jimmy Sweeney and Kyle Carlton had for their agriculture students.

Byrd was the Polk County School District teacher resource specialist for 12 years. He was in that position when Oliver and Sweeney retired in 2023, and he worked with Carlton, who is retiring in June. 

“Those instructors were not content with mediocre,” he says. “They were always trying to get their kids to have the most ambition, the most drive, and the most focus out of them that they could have,” he says.

Retirees Oliver and Sweeney and the soon-to-be-retired Carlton all say they had good runs with the Polk County School District at their various schools but are ready to clear their ag-teaching career chalkboards. 

Donna Oliver

Donna Oliver, 63, is a Chapel Hill, N.C., native who grew up in Auburn, Ala., and moved to Lakeland at 28 in 1988. A 1982 Auburn University graduate in landscape and ornamental horticulture, she holds a master’s degree in horticulture from Texas A&M University. After working in the horticulture industry in Norway, England, and Denmark, she returned to work at Auburn. Her father was once a physics professor there and helped develop in her a love of teaching.

“I think it just kind of came naturally for me,” she says. 

Former Polk County School District Agricultural Programs Director and former Superintendent Jim Thornhill asked Oliver to work as an ag teacher at Fruitland Park Learning Center in Lake Alfred — now Karen M. Siegel Academy. She worked there from 1989 to 1995, where she worked with special needs students in horticulture. From 1995 to 1997, she worked as the ag teacher at Lakeland’s George Jenkins High School; from 1997 to 2007 as the ag teacher at Lakeland High School; and from 2007 to 2023 at Siegel, helping ESE students work with soil and hydroponic plants as an ag teacher.

Oliver cites her work getting her ESE FFA students motivated and involved in the annual Polk County Youth Fair as one of her main accomplishments. Her FFA program started with just 30 students and grew to 84. 

“We had lots of exhibits every year. I was very proud of that, and I had a big (FFA) membership. If they were in my class, they were a member of FFA as part of our ag program,” she says, adding every student had at least one exhibit entered, some three or four. “It was a lot of work, but it was well worth it. The kids loved getting the ribbons and we had some good accomplishments throughout the year.”

Oliver also lists her work with NASA’s “Growing Beyond Earth” — for which her students grew and harvested vegetables in a space simulator — and “100 percent FFA student membership” as additional career accomplishments. Now she plans to do more traveling — she visited the Arctic last August — and do more work with the Philanthropic Educational Organization, a group that raises money for women’s scholarships.

“I retired because I was getting older. Working with ESE students, I had to do physical work and my body was just telling me ‘enough,’ ” she says. “But so far after retiring, that’s all kept me pretty busy.”

Jimmy Sweeney

On the other hand, Sweeney, a Lakeland native, says it is the opportunity to venture into a new line of work that made the 54-year-old decide to retire from the classroom.

The 1987 Lake Gibson High School graduate received a bachelor’s degree in animal science and physical education from Barry College in 1991. His father, grandparents, and an uncle all worked in the phosphate industry. He says Ellen Bryan, a teacher at Lakeland’s Kathleen Elementary School, instilled in him a love of plants and planting seeds and he ended up picking green beans, tomatoes, and citrus growing up.

A baseball player who wanted to coach, Sweeney began his professional career coaching baseball and teaching at Kathleen High School in Lakeland from 1992 to 2004. From 2004 to his June 2023 retirement, he taught at George Jenkins High School.

Along the way, Sweeney says, his biggest accomplishment was his ability to be on the same level with all of his students. 

“I like to think my accomplishments were just establishing a rapport with my students and just giving them a general love for agriculture, a passion for agriculture,” he says. “It was trying to establish in them a good work ethic and being respectful and being good, productive citizens.” 

An FFA advisor for 23 years, Sweeney served on various Polk County Youth Fair committees helping students with projects. 

“I liked seeing the culmination of the students’ hard work and then getting to show off their projects at the annual county fair,” he says. 

Now retired, Sweeney says he’ll work at Bowling Green’s Streamsong Golf Resort as its  recreation coordinator, taking guests on guided fishing trips, clay shooting trips, and archery. He’s also taken up a new hobby: custom-painting fishing lures. 

“I’ll be doing more fishing with Kyle (Carlton). We went to school together since third grade and worked together at Kathleen and Jenkins, so I’m really looking forward to being able to do more things with Kyle as well,” he adds.

Kyle Carlton

Carlton has taught extensively at Polk County schools: 

  • 1992-1995: Lakeland Highlands Middle School, science and social studies
  • 1995 to 2000: Kathleen High School, social studies
  • 2000 to 2017: Kathleen High School, FFA advisor and ag teacher
  • 2017 to present: George Jenkins High School, FFA advisor and ag teacher

He’ll be retiring from George Jenkins on June 27. 

Carlton, 54, also spent from 1991 to 1992 working in the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center. Since 2010, he’s owned and operated his own sawmill company and spent time working at a hay farm, in a bread bakery, a welding shop, baking pizzas and delivering Christmas trees, among other odd jobs. 

Now living in Lakeland with his wife, Tammy, he has two grown daughters – Morgan Odom and Shelby Dupre — and a daughter, Madison, 19, still living at home.

Prior to teaching, Carlton graduated from Lake Gibson High School in 1987 and got history and social science degrees from the University of South Florida in 1991. His first ag teaching job came in 2000 when the principal told him there was an opening in ag mechanics at Kathleen High.

“They called me and asked if I’d be interested in it. I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ but I really had no idea what I was doing,” says Carlton, who was in 4-H in high school. “I didn’t know what I was getting into with FFA as far as all the contests that were available — the conventions, public speaking, parliamentary procedure, all of that.”

However, Carlton quickly got a grasp on his career and ended up at George Jenkins. He says what he considers his accomplishments come not in the form of trophies or ribbons, but through kind words. He did mention his 2014 and 2015 National Champion Forestry Teams, his three state-winning Ag Mechanics teams, and coaching a state-winning Land Judging team as other career highlights. 

“When I run into students or parents who tell me I was a good teacher it’s nice. I had some parents pick up some wood and the dad thanked me for what I taught his children and their spouses and what they picked up in the agriculture program. That was kind of cool,” he says. 

“Over the years, I’ve enjoyed seeing students getting awards, but I like to stay low-key.”

After retiring, Carlton says an overdue vacation is in the future. He says he’ll also work on his SUVs, fish, hunt or just “walk in the woods.”

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