The timing of recent events has unfolded auspiciously for Payson High School’s new agriculture teacher Jadee Garner.
Just about one week into the school year, she watched ground break on the new agriculture building — a building which agriculture supporters wondered for years whether it would ever arrive.
Fortunately for Garner, she will soon enjoy a brand new, state-of-the-art facility that will rank among the state’s best.
Also luckily, Garner beat out three other, more experienced candidates to win head of Payson’s beloved agriculture program in an economy where many emerging teaching graduates find themselves nervously scouring classified ads for employment.
But perhaps luck also favored Payson. Interviews for program founder Wendell Stevens’ replacement didn’t begin until June — and school started in July.
“I’ll tell you from 30 years experience,” Stevens said, “That’s a terrible time to try and find an agriculture teacher.” Most teachers accept jobs by late April, “so to have a qualified candidate available in June was just amazing.”
In another stroke of luck, the school’s career and technical education coordinator left the district, which allowed Stevens to hand pick his successor, stay on in the vacated coordinator position and oversee the building’s construction.
Garner, an almost 23-year-old recent graduate from University of Arizona’s agriculture education program, won over the interviewing committee with her youthful gusto and passion for animals.
“I’ve heard that I have big shoes to fill — everybody tells me that,” said Garner. Yet Stevens can mentor her through the first year. “I’m so grateful to have him here,” she said.
“I’m just real excited,” said Stevens, “about her taking over the program. He added, “I wasn’t about to leave the kids and that program for just anybody.”
Garner grew up in Sedona on 10 acres surrounded by dogs and horses. She rodeos, and is a certified veterinary technician who minored in animal science. The credentials helped her land the job. Stevens said Payson students show an overwhelming interest in animal science.
Initially, Garner was set to pursue her master’s degree immediately after graduation to expand her options. Then a professor told her that Payson may have an opening and she decided to apply.
Even though Garner got the job, she will still work toward her master’s. “It’s a little challenging, but nothing I can’t handle,” she said.
About 120 students have signed up for the agriculture program this year, a far cry from the 35 kids Stevens recruited from his table outside the guidance counselor’s office to start the class in 1980.
“They didn’t even have a place for me the first semester,” Stevens remembered. “My whole office was a refrigerator crate and I would go from room to room.”
When Stevens arrived in Payson to teach what was then a forestry-based agriculture program, he too was a fresh-faced U of A graduate.
“I had never been to Payson before in my life,” he said. “But I heard it had four seasons and it had trees.”
By the end of the first year, district leaders considered disbanding the program. “Evidently I’d done some things right because a lot of the community showed up and convinced the board” to keep the program, said Stevens. It wouldn’t be the first time agriculture supporters showed up en masse to plea for the program.
“It was a good taste of humble pie,” said Stevens about his early days of low enrollment and fighting for the program. “You come out of U of A and they really made you feel like what you were teaching was really important and you could really prepare kids for life.”
Eventually, the program’s focus switched from forestry to horticulture, as Stevens tried to find the right mix. But enrollment declined after the transition and Stevens searched for a way to increase popularity.
He remembered a lesson learned when the outpouring of community support saved the program after the first year: “It wasn’t really my program or the kids’ program. It was the community’s program. It really cemented into me that those aren’t just words.”
Kids had told Stevens about their interest in animal science, and the subject became the program’s focus after roughly a decade.
Enrollment grew and has hovered at just over 100 students during recent history.
On the way, Stevens has won awards and continued fighting, this time for a building in which to house his animal science program.
The community kept fighting, too. “We wouldn’t have a new building unless the community supported it,” Stevens said.
Construction is projected to end in December.
“The main thing about the new building is it’s actually going to put kids and animals together in one place for the first time in the history of this program — and it’s an animal science program,” said Stevens.
Long gone will be the days when Stevens took his kids to competitions to give them more hands-on experience — or when they watched videos to learn procedures because the high school campus lacked space for large animals.
“This is really the time for me to leave the classroom because now we’re going to have a new teacher (and a) new building,” said Stevens. “That teacher can put the first scratches on the new building.”
Garner said the facility will include a round pin to walk horses so students can look for injuries, a boarding facility for community use, an exam room where students can check animals for vital signs, and space for dogs, horses and cats. The facility may offer boarding for owners briefly leaving town, and students can watch the animals.
“Agriculture is very hands-on,” said Garner.
Now, Stevens grapples with the emotions of letting his program go after three decades.
“It was really emotional,” said Stevens about his departure. “You see the faces of the kids that work real hard to keep their schedules together so they can take (agriculture). You feel a little bit like you’re letting them down.”
But, “it was time,” he added.
Garner will likely need to continue fighting for the program, Stevens said. “I think that when you teach an elective and it’s an expensive elective, I think you always have to fight for it to a certain degree.”
Stevens has passed the torch, but his legacy will live on.