A new partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could make Okaw Valley School District a regional leader in agricultural and environmental science, officials announced this week.

The district is leasing two agricultural tracts from the corps over the next four years, with students tending the land in exchange for its use. Cleanup has begun on the Kirksville Ag Lease, and preparations for planting pollinators this fall have begun. The McCabe Ag Lease needed less work, and soybeans were planted in June.

"This is something far beyond what I could have imagined," said Col. Anthony Mitchell, commander of the St. Louis District of the corps. "I was in FFA, but we didn't do anything like this. This is college level stuff in high school, in middle school."

Okaw Valley has already provided 895 hours of work, valued at more than $21,000. Lake Shelbyville Project Manager Jon Summers said work like that is appreciated by the corps.

"We have a ton of partners at Lake Shelbyville," Summers said. "Okaw Valley has already provided 20 perecent of our partner value in just five months."

Okaw Valley Superintendent Kent Stauder and High School Principal Matt Shoaff began talking three years ago about getting the district involved in farm management as a way of providing opportunities for the students in agriculture, natural resources, and stewardship. They shared their ideas with the Okaw Valley School Board, administration, and students.

During an announcement of the project at the Lake Shelbyville Visitors Center on Tuesday, officials said the partnership with the Corps of Engineers, along with corporate and business sponsors, is making that dream a reality. It's called CORPs, or Community Occupational Research Partnerships.

Officials say it will empower students with work and life skills that will allow them to become responsible citizens in business and in the community.

Stauder credited the Okaw Valley Board of Education.

"They let their teachers and administrators and students think outside of the box," he said.

"Some districts define success by how well they fill in bubbles on standardized tests," said Okaw Valley Middle School Principal Ross Forlines. "We've done that. But our mission is have students that become productive."

The McCabe Lease will have soybeans and corn rotation, and plots for pollinators and cover crops. Plots will also be set aside for wildlife. Students will work with a turkey habitat, an observation trail, and a bio lab. They'll also be involved in culvert repair on that site.

The Kirksville lease will also feature planting of pollinators, as well as bee hives. There will be a creek bio lab for the students and wildlife/forestry studies. That lease also has a beach to manage, across from the Findlay Marina.

Besides the corps, the students will work with local corporate sponsors.

"The teaching moments will be endless," said Jeff Sloan, of Sloan Implement.

Forlines said that studies have suggested many Americans end up living within 18 miles of where they grew up.

"We want to prepare these students to stay here," Forlines said.

Curtis Wise of Monsanto is involved with the project.

"We like having an intimate connection with students where they reside," Wise said. "And using technology to spark their interest and lead them into the future."

The Okaw Valley administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the corporate and business sponsors will set the table and contribute to the curriculum. However, the students will be the key. Okaw Valley students have been involved in performance education with Agri-Fab, Hyro-Gear, Shelby Manor, and the corps in the past.

The students have been working at Bo Woods and Coon Creek Campgrounds, as well as Woods Lake. They have been involved in cleaning up the Kirksville property and planting beans at the McCabe Lease.

The students are enthusiastic about the new initiative, according to Forlines.

"We have seen ownership from the kids who have done the service work," Forlines said.

District officialks want to involve every student in the CORPs experience. Another goal is to provide a two-year scholarship for qualifying seniors to attend Lake Land College.

Sloan is impressed with the Okaw Valley participants, and predicts great things from the partnership.

"With the energy of the administrative team and the kids, it will be a success," Sloan said.

Col. Mitchell also predcited great things.

"There is an appreciation you gain from hard work and seeing the fruits of your labor," Mitchell said. "This is what success looks like. NFL coach Tony Dungy said, 'Dare to be uncommon.'

"This is uncommon."

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