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STERLING, ILĀ (AP)

Hey, Sterling High School students: Interested in agriculture, but you didn't grow up on, or even around, a farm? That's OK. Neither did your new agriculture instructor and FFA adviser.

Elise Baker, 22, has loved horses since she was knee-high to a grasshopper.

"When I was little, every horse I could possibly see, I had to get on," the New Lennox native and Illinois State graduate said. "Whether it was the one at the supermarket or the live one at the state fair, I had to get on it."

Her family had a garden, and "it just kind of tumbled on from there," Baker said. "I went to college and I didn't want to sit behind a desk. I wanted to interact with people. But I'm not very good at math. I'm OK at science, and I'm awful at English. If I can bring a different perspective for students, that's amazing.

"I don't fit the norm, and I'm OK with it."

After all, modern ag goes way beyond the fence line.

"When people think about agriculture, they think of cows, plows and sows," Baker said. "We're so much more than that now. We're business classes, marketing classes and communication. We're collectors of everything. We can teach a variety of things."

She'll teach two environmental science classes starting this fall, as well as a biotech class that will turn into an animal science class at the end of the semester, a business class and, of course, and intro to ag industry class.

In offering ag classes, the district can finally have an FFA program for the first time in at least 20 years, and the group will include Challand Middle School eighth-graders. After hiring Baker, the district took another step in converting social studies teacher Julie LeFevre into an eighth-grade agriculture instructor.

LeFevre, 38, conversely, did grow up on a farm, near Kankakee. She served as her local 4-H chapter's president, and was her FFA chapter president, too, making her well-versed in the gospel she and Baker will be sharing with teens this fall.

"I'm an ag girl at heart," LeFevre said. "I'm excited for everyone to understand the scope of agriculture - from ag business, to farming to the food we eat and the products we use. It's a farming and ag community, a small community. Our small town family values tie right in."

Baker was excited to move to a small town, making her and LeFevre more like peas in a pod than yin and yang.

"We complement each other so well," LeFevre said.

After teaching ag at Bureau Valley High School, LeFevre took time to be a stay-at-home mom after she had her twins, Blake and Alicia, now 11. Soon, however, she started subbing again, throughout Whiteside County schools.

"A little bit of everything in my classroom is from what I gained watching other teachers throughout Whiteside County," she said.

One of her former BV students, Sarah Conner, is the ag instructor in Prophetstown, and there have been rumblings - albeit friendly ones - as to when Sterling would get an FFA chapter.

"Ag education is something the (Sterling) community has been longing for," LeFevre said. "But, more than 'Why isn't there?", it was 'How can we? How can we be part of that?' It was always with a positive attitude. That's how this community got this."

Challand Middle School will also offer a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) elective, which LeFevre said will go "hand-in-hand" with ag, and an Ag Club will be added at the middle school - you know, the sort of opportunity Baker would have leapt at as a middle-schooler.

"In high school, I didn't fit in with the band kids; I didn't fit in with the art kids; I was just kind of there," ''That's what I want my classroom to kind of collect: kids who don't have a home. But I also want it to be a home for kids who have homes in other places."

Baker polished off her ag education degree this past spring, and said the prospect of starting a program while starting her full-time teacher career is daunting but thrilling.

"Every emotion you can possibly think about is going through my head," she said. "It's like drinking from the firehose as a first-year teacher, and I love it. I love drinking from the firehose."

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