- November 18, 2020
Before she stepped through the doors of West Orange High’s FFA and agriculture classroom building, Kristy Lightbody knew there were going to be challenges.
Even so, nothing could have prepared her for what would happen after crossing the threshold for the first time.
“It was beyond disgusting in here,” said Lightbody, the new agriscience teacher and FFA adviser at West Orange. “There was rat feces everywhere — in the kitchen area, in all the different classrooms. The smell alone walking into the building would turn the facilities and maintenance crew away.”
The building was infested with rats, and students said they would find dead rats throughout it or heard live ones scurrying about up in the ceiling. The agriculture yard was overgrown with tall grass, and there was no clear method of organization.
To top it all off, the previous teacher took all the animals on the premises with her when she left the school, leaving the students without any.
Lightbody took a deep breath, held her head high and focused on the task at hand — righting the ship and creating a program of which her students could be proud.
Lightbody does not have a background in agriculture, but anyone who does know her knows that she has the heart of a teacher. The spark to consider moving into her role came from none other than the students with whom she worked daily.
“I have been teaching and tutoring math over the last four years, and a couple of the students I’ve worked with have been part of the program at SunRidge Middle’s FFA,” she said. “(As they were) moving up to the high-school level, they were looking at other options — such as applying to Colonial High’s (agriscience) magnet or moving to Windermere, because they were worried about things they’d heard with the West Orange program and teachers here not being quite as active and involved as in the rest of the county and state.”
As Lightbody continued tutoring, she heard things from her previous students that struck her as odd. Students said they were missing out on field trips and opportunities to go to agriscience-related events, and some felt it was better to keep their own animals off property.
“Over the course of about four months, it was me listening to the students talk about how the program was not where they wanted it and how they were going to quit, because they weren’t getting anything out of it,” she said. “I went from wondering if that was something I’d consider to finding that the students were so excited about me even thinking about it.”
In November 2017, she decided to take the leap of faith for her students. Although it would be a learning curve going from teaching math to horticulture and animal science, she studied for months and worked toward earning her certification to teach the courses.
“I went to an agriculture-based high school and always joked in high school that my school had tractors and cows on property, and now I’m actually in charge of the tractors and cows,” she said, laughing. “My husband and I, over the last five years we have had a very small-scale farm in our backyard. Where we live is agriculture-zoned, so we have had two goats, a flock of chickens, some ducks and rabbits over the last couple of years.”
SunRidge Middle agriculture teacher Katrina Alford provided study materials and advice, and after passing her certification, Lightbody began focusing her vision for the program.
The first time she saw the property in June 2018, a bit of shock set in. The grass in the six-and-one-half-acre agriculture yard had been allowed to grow several feet tall, and the classroom building also was in poor condition.
But that didn’t deter Lightbody or her students and parents from restoring the program to its former glory. Over the course of the summer, they rolled up their sleeves and spent countless hours tackling the clean-up process.
“(We were) cutting, weed eating and trimming (the ag yard) and cleaning the building,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can do when you have dedicated parents and students helping you, and there’s no way I could do this without them. A team of parents and students came with gloves and Fabuloso and just attacked the entire building. Some of the kids documented 150 to 200 community service hours this summer working.”
Freshman Adrianna Loper, the FFA chapter’s junior president, came over from the agriculture program at SunRidge. Although she hadn’t experienced West Orange’s program before Lightbody, she was excited to be part of revamping the program.
“I had seen the previous (WOHS) program and thought it was OK until I heard otherwise from the students,” Loper said. “It didn’t sound at all good, and I was one of the ones here over the summer, and we cleaned out a lot. The garage was a total mess — dead rats everywhere, and I was the designated one to pick them up.”
Students stacked and organized tools, placed gardening tools and equipment on pegs on walls, and took ownership of their space.
“(It was great) getting things organized and putting them in places where they’d be efficient and useful — we got the tractor up and running this summer and that’s played a big role in exploration and growth,” said sophomore Amelia Sauls, chapter treasurer. “The way things have been managed, they’re constantly trying to improve it.”
Now, halfway through the school year, both the property and the program look drastically different.
Over the summer, the program received donations of leopard geckos, bearded dragons, guinea pigs, rabbits, land tortoises, aquatic turtles, snakes, a hedgehog and more for a total of more than 25 classroom animals.
There’s also a 6-month-old Jersey heifer calf named Buttercup, along with goats, ducks, steer, sheep, pigs, miniature horses, chickens and rabbits.
Each area of the ag yard now has its own purpose, and students are working on different pasture rotations. There’s a large area in the back that soon will be cleared out and turned into a pasture area. And since the beginning of the year, 60 students have joined FFA.
But perhaps some of the most exciting changes and additions to the program are just around the bend.
The school recently received a large grant from the 4 Rivers Foundation, which came to the school and saw what was being done with the agriscience program. The grant will fund the program’s ADA-compliant raised garden-bed area, which includes raised planter boxes with low-maintenance Florida vegetation, drip irrigation, a seating area, fencing and a koi pond.
“Even if we don’t have any students in wheelchairs, we want the program to be accessible to everyone,” Lightbody said. “The 4 Rivers Foundation loved the idea, and I thought they’d maybe sponsor one or two of the beds but they decided to sponsor the entire area.”
Another goal is to install a large pole barn in the area where another barn once was, just across from the classroom building. The old barn was torn down because of damages that posed a safety hazard, but Lightbody and her students hope to work with the county and community to build a new barn area that would serve many purposes.
The idea consists of a 4,000-square-foot area with stalls for bovine and sheep, two show rings, a storage area, three bovine wash racks and restrooms.
“A lot of the (current) livestock structures are as old as the program is and some of them need a lot of work,” Lightbody said. “Over the summer, the parents patched up and built a lot of the exterior of the structures, but if we don’t have the pole barn in our sights by this summer, we’ll gut the steer pens and rebuild them. We also are going to be giving our swine area a complete overhaul.”
Lightbody and her students also are starting a therapy animal club, which will use the program’s two miniature horses, two pigs and some guinea pigs and rabbits. Students will be able to join the therapy animal club and will have to spend six months working toward becoming certified handlers. They will then be able to go out in public and bring therapy animals to students or community members.
But with all of the cleanup, hard work and big plans ahead, the biggest transformation in the program lies within the students who call it home.
“The biggest change is that I actually see excitement in them again, and I see them looking toward the future and coming up with new ideas on their own and bringing them to the table,” Lightbody said. “They definitely feel they’re a part of something big and exciting and something that is going to be a positive name in the community.”