For most teenagers, a normal high school day consists of switching between classes, walking past a locker, and long stretches sitting at a desk or lab table in a classroom.
But at Walter B. Saul High School, the largest agricultural high school in the nation, students spend most of their day anywhere but inside.
The school, one of the School District of Philadelphia special admit magnet schools, features regular classrooms in the school building at 7100 Henry Ave. But across Henry Avenue, in the school’s pastures along the edge of the Wissahickon Valley Park, students are thrust into hands-on learning in the school’s fields, gardens, horse farm, dairy farm, and livestock center.
“I was here to witness a lamb giving birth,” junior Hailee Crooks-Williams said. “I’m about to see calving, when a cow gives birth.”
Crooks-Williams has always had a passion for animals. After learning about Saul and the school’s agricultural curricula, she moved with her family to Philadelphia from Charleston, SC to attend the school.
Freshmen attending Saul are given an introduction to the farm through a variety of hands-on activities with animals like horses, cows, sheep, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, and rats.
At the end of the year, they decide what aspect of agricultural science they want to study for the next three years. They can choose from horticulture, environmental science, food science, and animal science.
Crooks-Williams chose animal science. She wants to attend Tuskegee University and become a large animal veterinarian after graduation.
“I take care of small animals,” she said. “So it’s like an actual job, but you don’t get paid for it.”
Jane Arbasak is the farm administrator and has worked at the school for 20 years.
“I provide expertise and basically the teaching tools that they need,” Arbasak said. “I’m there for guidance.”
Sophomores and seniors who focus on animal science have been working with the horses in recent weeks. In the mornings, sophomores go out to the horse barn, where they are tasked with haltering the horses and bringing them to the school’s riding arena to walk and run around.
While horses are in the riding arena, students fill buckets with water and place them in the horses stables. Each student or group of students are assigned a specific horse so that they get accustomed to that horse’s behavior over the course of a semester.
“They’re learning body language,” Arbasak said. “How to read body language, how to control body language. They’re learning that animals just respond to you.”
Later in the day, seniors come down to the horse barn, take the horses out of their stalls, and tie them up outside so they can prep the barn. These students are tasked with weighing, refilling, and hanging bale nets in the stalls. They clean the barn and then lead the horses around the riding arena, stopping frequently for water.
“The older kids learn about training and animal behavior, and how we use that animal behavior to train the animals to get the animals to do what we want them to do,” Arbasak said.
By observing the animals now, students are learning the skills necessary to work with livestock in a variety of potential careers, Arbasak said.
“They’re learning about how a horse reacts, versus how a cow reacts, versus how sheep reacts,” she said. “And how we use that knowledge to manage a herd of cattle, or manage a herd of horses, or manage a flock of sheep.”
After working on the farm this year, Crooks-Williams has learned a great deal about the animals, she said.
“I’ve learned about their pivot points, their balance points, how they react,” she said. “How they need to be by each other to be calm. How they can easily get stressed out if they’re not, like, with each other and not familiarized.”
Freshmen who choose horticulture will deal mostly with plants, participating in projects that are showcased at the annual Philadelphia Flower Show. Students also learn how to operate tractors, lawn mowers, and other heavy equipment, as well as how to manage and care for a greenhouse.
Lisa Blum has been teaching students horticulture for over 20 years. Students at Saul learn important life skills, she said.
“That’s what’s neat about this,” she said. “We try to have the kids connect, to be stewards of the land, care about the future, and also nurture something, care for something.”
Students take real pride in learning how to take care of living things, Blum said
“Whether it’s a little gerbil, or whether it’s a petunia, they watch it grow, and they watch it flower, and they get such joy out of that,” she said. “It’s so basic, but so many people, including adults, don’t have that.”
According to Blum, many students who graduate from Saul don’t go directly into an agricultural career or degree in college, but what they learn during their time at the school helps them regardless what directions their lives take afterward.
“The skills that they learn—taking care of something and being responsible—carries them wherever they go,” she said.
Many of the alumni Blum has kept in touch with go into fields like nursing, social work, or occupational therapy.
“When you think about it, they like to nurture living things,” she said.
Arbasak believes the school’s model of experiential learning is unique, and leaves each student with valuable lessons at the end of each day.
“I think the most important thing that kids learn is responsibility,” she said. “They learn work ethic, they learn empathy for another creature. They learn to control their emotions. They learn teamwork, they learn to work by themselves.”
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