Farm Team

By Debra Gordon — November 01, 2001 9 min read
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‘Yo, cow. C’mon, cow. Let’s go, cow.” Thirteen-year-old Ruby Clark tugs fruitlessly at the blue halter rope looped around Cow No. 40, aka Anastasia, trying to move the 1,500-pound beast out of the fenced enclosure onto the pavement for her bath on this muggy August morning. Finally, with a weary shake of her head, Anastasia slowly begins moving.

Grinning in triumph, Ruby leads the animal to the side of the fence, loops the halter over a metal pole, and picks up the hose snaking around the cow’s legs, being careful not to get kicked or step in a pile of steaming manure. As Karen Conway, also 13, begins squeezing soap out of a bottle onto the cow’s fly-specked back, Ruby aims the hose at Anastasia’s wide flank and pulls the trigger, sending a stream of water coursing down her hide.

Though this sounds like a typical chore at a Midwestern dairy farm, it’s actually class work for these teenagers, both freshmen at Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences—which is just eight miles from the massive office buildings that define Philadelphia’s skyline.

Perched on the outskirts of the city of 1.5 million, in the middle-class neighborhood of Roxborough, Saul is one of only three high schools in the country that come complete with their own working farms. Here, 660 kids from throughout Philly muck out stalls, heft bales of hay, and watch lambs kick their way into the world, while also solving linear equations, conjugating Spanish verbs, and memorizing the periodic table.

In her third week of a monthlong summer orientation for incoming freshmen, Karen, wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with the words “Perfect Princess” emblazoned in glitter across her chest, has gotten somewhat used to the animals and the smells and the filth. But at first, she says, it was quite a shock. “I expected them to bring an animal up to the front of the class, and then we’d have, like, a free period or something where we got to play with them. I didn’t know we’d be mucking out stalls and all. It’s OK, though. It just takes some getting used to.” Except for the sheep. “They really stink.”

Karen came to Saul for the same reason most new students give when you ask why they were willing to leave their friends and trek here, often spending an hour or more on public transportation: “I want to be a vet.”

But with all the opportunities abounding on campus—the school operates a plant nursery, a fish hatchery, and a meat- cutting lab—chances are Karen won’t stick to that plan. “We have horses and cattle, but I don’t think anyone’s goal at our school is to make one of the kids from the city get a job on the farm,” says Dave Snyder, a Saul alumnus who’s taught there for 21 years. In fact, Saul graduates own flower shops, manage golf courses, and design gardens. They also work in fields that have nothing to do with agriculture. Notes Snyder, the Saul curriculum is designed to foster confidence and trust; it helps students overcome their fears not just of large farm animals but of trying new things, taking risks, and getting dirty. “Those are life skills that make a student successful no matter what their future.”

The Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences was born in 1943 as the Wissahickon Farm School when then-chairman of the school board Walter Biddle Saul decided something was needed for city boys who just couldn’t cut it in the traditional academic setting. With many agricultural workers away fighting World War II and the lush Pennsylvania farms desperate for help, he figured the school would not only help farmers, but would keep the boys out of trouble and teach them a lifelong skill. “The idea back then was that farmers were closer to God,” explains Stewart McDonough, who has taught at Saul for more than 30 years. “That working with your hands, digging around in the dirt, was a way to become a good person.”

‘I didn’t know we’d be mucking out stalls and all. It just takes some getting used to.’ Except for the sheep. ‘They really stink.’

Karen Conway,
Saul High School

The school chugged along with fewer than 250 students until the passage of the Vocational Education Act of 1963. Then, grabbing up the potfuls of money that suddenly became available to career-oriented schools, Saul grew faster than corn in July.

Today, the school leases 100 acres in Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped city park nationwide, which sits just across the street from the school buildings. The facilities include a 22-cow dairy barn, two greenhouses, a one- hole golf course (for teaching golf course maintenance), and a state-of-the-art, government-inspected, meat-cutting laboratory. There is a veritable Noah’s ark of animals on campus—Belted Galloways (cows prized for their lean beef), Jacob and Dorset sheep, a llama to protect the sheep from dogs who sometimes run loose in the park, horses, pigs, chickens, and, in aquaculture tanks, fish.

The school is no longer designed to train just traditional farmers but instead works to expose students to a wide range of career opportunities in agriculture, one of the largest industries in the nation and the largest in Pennsylvania. Many of these careers, such as landscape design, agricultural research, and animal medicine, require advanced degrees, so preparing for college is part of the picture, with about 75 percent of students’ time spent on academic classes. Nearly 70 percent of Saul students go on to community or four-year colleges. Still, school officials encourage kids to pursue all types of futures. “At a lot of schools, if a kid doesn’t go to college, they’re considered a failure,” says Snyder. “Here, the whole idea is that at the end of four years, you should be able to go to college if you want to, or you can get a job.”

Competition for acceptance into the school is fierce. More than 2,000 students apply for 250 spots each year. Of those, only about half meet the necessary criteria of a minimum C average, a good record of behavior and attendance, and a strong interest in agriculture and horticulture. Interviews followed by a lottery then determine who gets in.

“About 80 percent of kids think they want to be vets” when they enroll, says McDonough. “That’s what city kids know of animals.” But once they rotate through the various courses—with names like lab animal technology, meat science, ag marketing, retail floriculture, and turfgrass management—they quickly realize that agriculture is much more than pigs and sheep. In their junior year, students pick a major, much as they’d do in college, in which they specialize for the final two years.

‘Here, the whole idea is that at the end of four years, you should be able to go to college if you want to, or you can get a job.’

Dave Snyder,
Saul High School

Sometimes it’s parents who want their children here, says Principal Thomas Scott, because Saul, as one of the smallest schools in the district, has a reputation for safety. But the school efficiently weeds out students who aren’t genuinely interested in agriculture. For starters, the required orientation for incoming freshmen—a program that steeps them in safety information and teaches the rudiments of running a farm—is held during the hottest, stickiest part of the summer, when the inside of a barn really smells like the inside of a barn. Generally, about three or four students drop out during the month. After that, strict disciplinary policies shuck off the rest: Missing as few as six classes in a one-semester course is grounds for failing that course at Saul, which boasts a 94 percent attendance rate. “We can’t just send things home like a regular school can,” explains floral design and horticulture teacher Pam Snyder. Bottom line: “If a student doesn’t want to do this type of work, there’s almost nothing an adult can do to make them successful,” says Scott.

It’s barn-cleaning time at Saul on this overcast, late-summer day. A skinny cat winds its way through the legs of the 20 or so incoming freshmen who tromp into the concrete-floored dairy barn and grab pitchforks, wheelbarrows, and brooms. “Come on. Everyone knows where they’re supposed to be, so get in there,” calls teacher Guy Amoroso. “We’ve got bigger and better and more important things to do.”

As the kids begin flinging manure-and-urine soaked straw into wheelbarrows, Amoroso makes sure the kids know that the dirty straw doesn’t get thrown out, but composted. He suggests they lay down the less-expensive straw in the now-cleaned stalls instead of the more-expensive hay. “What does it all come down to?” he prompts. “Money!” the students shout back. “Money,” he says, nodding in satisfaction.

This exchange points to one way Saul instills a sense of purpose in its students: Its farm units are not just for show; they’re real businesses. The school is a member of the Land O’ Lakes dairy cooperative, which picks up the milk from the Holsteins each week. The meat-packing classes package the results of their work, selling fresh chicken, beef, and pork to teachers and neighborhood residents. When the city thinned the deer population in Fairmont Park one year, a class processed more than 130 carcasses and donated some 4,000 pounds of venison to a local feed-the-hungry program. Even the 7,000 trees in the still-infant nursery will be sold or donated to local parks and beautification programs.

The school earns approximately $100,000 a year from its farming ventures, all of which is plowed back into buying animals, supplies, and equipment. After all, it’s a rare school that has to budget for an 18-wheeler full of hay every month, like the one pulling in behind the barn on this hot day.

“The students know that whatever we do, whether it’s raising horses or raising flowers, it’s important to us—nearly as important as they are,” says McDonough. “So there’s an ownership thing the students pick up on.” Recent Saul graduate Naomi Miller, 19, agrees. “It’s more than just teaching a class to them,” she says.

“You get a challenge coming here,” Miller adds. “I remember talking to my friends who didn’t go here about their day, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we did math, and then I skipped science because it’s not my thing.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I gave a mouse an injection today, and we’re testing the guinea pigs to see what they’re doing, and I took the horses down the trail.’ And it’s that challenge, that never knowing what you’re going to do the next day, that’s so exciting.”

Miller is currently majoring in landscape design at Temple University—a choice she says the agricultural organization internships that Saul encourages its students to do helped her make. (One of her internships was at the ornamental Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia.) But, she adds, the real value of her Saul education lies in the personal qualities farm work fostered in her. Miller offers patience as an example. “The patience it takes to raise an animal and create a workable landscape is what it takes to deal with clients in the field,” she says.

Principal Scott agrees. In watching a cow being artificially inseminated or a calf being born, in seeing chicks go from hatchlings to the poultry factory in just 10 weeks, students learn about systems, he says. “I think too often we try to teach kids the lower-level things, when they really need the big picture and the big ideas,” he says. “They get excited about the big ideas.”


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