Ag Building A Victory For All

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Pop a cork on the champagne — or the sparking cider — or the moonshine — whatever the Future Farmers of America uses to celebrate.

After years of struggle, the Payson Unified School District this week broke ground on its new, 12,000-square-foot, $1 million agriculture building.

What a great story — enough to make Babe the Pig tear up.

It starts with a terrific teacher — Wendell Stevens, who has been inspiring kids to grow, mature and launch careers for 30 years.

As this remarkable teacher neared retirement, he started to worry whether the program he built with love and bailing wire would survive his departure.

After all, he had to run the darn thing out of a computer lab. He would enter the students in statewide competitions just so they would get to actually handle animals. But despite those grave insufficiencies, Payson High School’s program scored consistently in the top ranks statewide.

Fortunately, the school board and an ingenious administration responded to Stevens’ pleas to build a facility worthy of the program — using a combination of leftover bond money and grants from the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology. The countless students who testified to the program’s impact on their lives and who showed up every time its fate dangled by a thread played their own inspirational role.

Now, here’s why you should care — even if you don’t have a child who could gain competence, inspiration and direction from the program in years to come. Payson right now stands uncertainly at a crossroads — between being and becoming. We have a good grasp of what we have been — a logging town, a ranching town, an outpost on the frontier and finally a rural community with a work ethic and a big heart.

And we are working at becoming a tourist town that welcomes retirees while struggling to build a better economic base. To maintain the town we love, we must reconcile past and future. We need a healthy, diverse economy so our kids can stay here when they grow up. But we also must remain that quiet, friendly, beautiful place that holds us here in the first place.

The agricultural program at the high school occupies prime real estate overlooking that crossroad, for it honors our history, offers options to our children and reconciles both being and becoming.

So celebrate the good news — and let Payson remain Payson.

Invest in kids, reap the rewards

Do you care about kids? Should you? Consider a couple of intersecting headlines. First: A startling study of kindergarten teachers this week confounded the experts and confirmed what every parent knows. Specifically: Great teachers change kids’ lives, especially little kids.

The study set out to determine whether a great kindergarten teacher has any lasting impact on a child. Previous studies have shown that students do much better on test scores after having a good kindergarten teacher, but the test score advantage largely fades away by middle school.

This study by researchers from Harvard University examined the impact of a good kindergarten teacher on people 25 years later. To their surprise, the researchers discovered that on average people who had good kindergarten teachers made an extra $1,000 annually at the age of 27. The income gain appears to also grow over time.

The researchers concluded that a good kindergarten teacher therefore produces economic benefits of $320,000 a year, when compared to a less inspired teacher.

Second: The Arizona Legislature wants to gobble up the proceeds from an 80-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes voters four years ago earmarked for an array of early childhood services.

Backers of the First Things First early childhood initiative spent three years developing the program and handed out county-by-county grants for the first time last year. In Gila County, the money will help pay for quality day care, screening kids for developmental problems, training therapists and teaching kids to read.

That move comes on top of the Legislature’s decision to eliminate funding for all-day kindergarten.

But who cares? Right?

Maybe you’ve already raised your kids. Let someone else sweat it. If it’s not your kid — then it doesn’t matter. Does it?

Maybe not: So long as you don’t need someone to pay into Social Security and Medicare, when you need it. So long as you don’t think the economy would benefit from the extra $320,000 a year earned by a class full of kindergartners with a good teacher and the help they need.

Do you care? Should you?

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