LOS LUNAS — “What have they not done?”

Shannon Watling, the agriculture teacher and FFA sponsor at the School of Dreams Academy, rapidly listed off the many awards her students have won over the past year with one of their crowning achievements creating the grand champion state fair booth.

“We did a bug-themed booth about what bugs are good or bad — which ones you should squish and which ones you should not,” Watling said. “We actually had a group of non-traditional ag students that did some paper mache and pulled it together — it looked really cool.”

Submitted photo
In the past seven years, the FFA program at School of Dreams Academy has grown into the largest program in the county, earning second in the state competition in May.

Also among her students are rodeo queens, belt-buckle winners, and leadership and career development event champions.

“I may be a lead in the chapter, but really and truly it’s these kids,” the sponsor said. “If you were to sit back and ask my family, I am stressing any night before competition. If I ask this much of the kids and they give me a mile and they are always pushing more to make me happy, because really truly, I get the happy dance and the tears in my eyes when I am cheering them on.”

Watling has worked for seven years building Valencia County’s newest FFA chapter, which is now about 50 students — the largest in the county. Recruiting has played a big factor, reaching out to students at stock shows, fairs and even from a court hearing.

“If I am at a county fair and these 4-H students are looking at them and they are like ‘Wow, look at those kids; wow they are great speakers and they are great showers,’” Watling said. “When you hear grand champion from this 4-H and the School of Dreams Academy … A lot of people don’t know about us or they don’t have the right picture in mind. But, when you see these kids out, then they are like ‘wow’ and we’ve recruited a lot that way.”

The chapter president and SODA junior Chelby Kenney was recruited by Watling at EXPO New Mexico during a stock show. With the help of SODA’s Future Farmers of America, she has won 12 different stock events with nine different animals.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities through the ag program,” Kenney said. “I’m a District III officer for the state FFA — that’s really exciting. The school is amazing at making sure that I get to follow my career path, so I get to take my high school classes and my dual credit classes.”

SODA senior Taylor Rolan was also recruited by Watling at the EXPO New Mexico stock show.

Submitted photo
Taylor Rolan, SODA senior, and Chelby Kenney, SODA FFA chapter president, were both recruited by FFA sponsor and SODA agriculture teacher Shannon Watling to participate in the program. They won nearly two-dozen buckles for stock shows and competed in a handful of other events from Vet Science to Ag Education.

“I’ve been involved in ag since I was little, but I never really understood it until I joined the program, and now I understand every single little aspect —  from how it feeds us to how it clothes us and shelters us,” Rolan said. “FFA has really opened me up. I used to sit in the classroom every morning; I wouldn’t go make friends, but ever since I’ve joined, I really enjoy public speaking and talking to anyone.”

In addition to winning more than 10 buckles this year for stock showing her 16 animals, Rolan is also this year’s Bosque Farms Rodeo Queen.

The school’s FFA took home second place as a team at the state’s FFA competition in May, and traveled to nationals, not to compete, but to get a feel for the competition. Watling said the trip was just what they needed “to add gasoline to the fire.”

“This is our seventh year and we want to hit No. 1,” Watling said. “If you hit No. 1, you get an invite to go to nationals. Last year, we got No. 2, so we’re like it’s time, we’ve paved the way and we need to make it happen.”

The charter school’s agriculture program, also taught by Watling, came about when Superintendent Mike Ogas gave Watling a time and space to teach after she noticed a lot of their students already participate in 4-H.

She originally began at the school teaching engineering, but as interest in agriculture grew, Watling moved to only teaching ag classes. She now teaches more than 180 secondary students over all eight periods.

“When I say, ‘This is why agriculture is important and this is why we feed into it,’ they feed into my passion and they just say, ‘OK, we’ll jump in,’” Watling said. “It’s really cool watching kids go, ‘Yeah, we do need agriculture. We do need food and fiber and fuel and textiles. We do need to care about it because its and industry that most people don’t take care of, but it’s one of the industries that’s foundational for everything else in our world.’”

Several of Watling’s students recognized her dedication to the program, and she was voted the News-Bulletin’s Best Teacher in Valencia County in 2021.

“She is 100 percent our backbone,” Kenney said. “She wakes up at 4 a.m. and doesn’t go to bed until she gets stuff done, which is stupid late. If you look inside her calendar, every weekend there is something for us. Every day, there is something for us and it’s all in pen, so it’s not changeable. She revolves her life around FFA and we are so thankful.”

The feeling is mutual, with Watling pointing back to her students as the real change-makers in the program. She says there isn’t one thing she would ask her students to do better.

“Maybe bathroom breaks on the way to nationals,” she said laughing.

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Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.