It’s 8 a.m. in the vast, chilly agricultural-science building, and Clyde McBride is reaching deep into the back end of a black cow to deposit prize-winning bull semen. Sixteen teenagers, bunched into a tight semicircle, watch silently, necks craning. Not one of them asks that most pervasive of high school questions: “Why do I have to learn this?”
The students in Monument Valley High School’s “ag-science” program know exactly why they are learning to perform artificial insemination. It empowers them to provide veterinary services that are scarce and crucial to their families and neighbors here in Navajo Nation. It boosts their employability, confidence, and future wage earnings. And it opens doorways to college.
Here in the northeastern corner of Arizona, on an arid plain edged with sandy orange spires and pine-dotted mesas, teenagers have a rare opportunity to practice what policy wonks preach: to study academics through a lens that matters to them. A keen sense of relevance, and of community service, runs deep in students’ work here, where many Navajo families depend on livestock for their livelihood.
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Trevon Neztsosie, a senior in the program, says he likes the hands-on approach to learning better than sitting in a classroom. With his skills, he can far out-earn the burger flippers down the street and he can help his family, by taking over vaccinations of their sheep, goats, and cattle.
“It feels good to me to give back,” Trevon says on a crisp fall morning as he pours feed for a few bulls snuffling around in the pen outside the ag-science building. “I like it when I can do something useful.”
Defying the Odds
McBride, who is the director of career and technical education in the 2,000-student Kayenta Unified school district, started this program in 1990 and has built it into a powerhouse that catapults students past the odds they’d face without it. In a Native American community of high poverty and unemployment, his 200 students outscore their peers statewide on math and English tests, and 100 percent graduate from high school, outstripping the statewide average by 22 percentage points. Three-quarters of McBride’s graduates enroll in college or training programs. The rest go straight into the workforce.
- Serve the Community: Career and technical education programs must reflect the needs of the local community. The community will support programs that support what it needs.
- Give Students Ownership: Put students in the driver’s seat. Make them understand that the program belongs to them and treat it as such.
- Reject the Naysayers: If you have a big dream for kids that everyone else has written off, don’t give up.
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“The work he does and the successes of his students are phenomenal,” says Jeanne Roberts, who oversees career and technical education for the Arizona education department.
Those outcomes were exactly what McBride, 50, aimed for when he decided to become a teacher. He knew the odds against students from hardscrabble ranches because he grew up on one himself, in a tiny southern Arizona town.
McBride’s father worked the copper mines and raised cattle. But he died when McBride was 16, leaving him to handle the family livestock. His own agricultural-science teacher became his mentor and father figure, and McBride wanted to follow in his footsteps, but couldn’t permit himself to abandon his responsibilities to attend college. To leave him no choice, McBride’s mother sold the ranch.
When he completed his bachelor’s degree and teaching credential, there was a job in Kayenta. McBride grabbed it. An outsider, he knew it would take time to earn this tightknit community’s trust. Little by little, many families saw that this white man wanted to do right by them and their children.
McBride had a pesky dream, though. He yearned to build a spacious, modern complex where his students could learn and practice veterinary skills. He sketched it, pushed relentlessly for it, and finally—after two decades—got it. The $2.4 million Agri-Science Center opened in 2011.
The center boasts one operating room for small animals and another for large ones, each with elevated observation rooms. There’s an exam and prep room and a specially designed padded recovery room for horses and cows, so they don’t injure themselves as post-surgery sedation wears off. In another area, a stall known as a squeeze chute holds large animals in place for procedures.
Harry Martin, who helped cobble together the money for the building as superintendent of the Kayenta schools from 2009 to 2015, said he was a career-tech-ed skeptic when he arrived in the district. A former English teacher, Martin was focused on building students’ traditional academic strengths and saw no role for CTE. But the strong exam-passing and graduation rates of McBride’s students changed his mind.
“Clyde made a believer out of me,” Martin says. “His program gives students a powerful intrinsic motivator to come to school, because they can see its connection to their community, the way it makes sense in their lives.”
Responding to Community Need
McBride didn’t focus his agricultural-science program on veterinary skills at random. He saw that it was what the community wanted and needed. People kept asking: Can you come out and treat my colicky horse? Can you help birth our lambs? And there were emergencies, like the time a family’s sheep herd was attacked by wild dogs. McBride summoned a group of students, grabbed his bag of supplies, and raced out to the homestead. Suturing and bandaging like mad, they saved the family’s herd—and their livelihood.
Now, the ag-science building functions as both classroom and community clinic. Dogs, cats, goats, cows, sheep, and horses flow through its big doors all day—more than 12,000 animal patients in the past five years. For a modest fee, community members can get a range of services that are either impossible to find nearby or are too costly.
And the students learn. One fall day, McBride’s wife and fellow ag-science teacher shows students how to take the pulse and rectal temperature of a nervous Chihuahua who’d come in for vaccinations. They also learn to create proper intake charts and interact in a friendly, professional way with their customers, the animal owners. “Remember, always make nice eye contact,” Elissa McBride advises them.
That afternoon, Clyde McBride and 17 of his students clamber onto a little bus and ride along a rubbly road to help a woman whose sheep and goats need vaccinations. Working in teams, they rope and tackle each animal, hold it in place for the shot, and release it.
Early the next morning, a little white goat comes to the clinic, bleating softly, in her owner’s arms. Guided by McBride, students gently wrap and cast her broken leg. The afternoon is packed with pregnancy checks for cows and horses and a few bull castrations. (“Remember,” McBride tells the boys who are gathered behind the bull to do the deed, “if you get kicked, it just makes you tougher.”)
Over by the squeeze chute, a group of students watch, rapt, as Elissa McBride dons a shoulder-length plastic glove, and guides an ultrasound probe deep into a cow to find out which ovary had released an egg. The students recount the process: 66 days earlier, this cow had been given drugs to force the release of an egg. Knowing which ovary released the egg will help guide Clyde McBride as he performs the insemination moments later.
Students are using the insemination work in a genetics project on the calves they raise from high-grade bull semen. They’re trying different combinations of feed and nutritional supplements and tracking the outcomes to figure out which produce the most efficient weight gain. That’s more than an academic exercise—it’s crucial knowledge for those who raise, show, and sell cattle.
True to McBride’s intent, the insemination work also benefits the community. Dollie Smallcanyon, a local rancher who brought in five heifers for pregnancy checks and four bull calves for castration, said the clinic is “indispensable” to her, especially since she can improve the quality of her herd through the artificial-insemination program. Better breeding will command a higher meat price.
McBride is proud that his students’ knowledge of medications and procedures will set them up for skilled jobs in veterinary offices, feed stores, or on ranches, earning substantially more than the minimum-wage jobs that dominate the region. He’s confident that they’re well prepared to pass the veterinary-assistant exam, excel in veterinary-technician programs, or go to college. But he’ll tell you that it’s the students who made that happen.
“This is their program. They run it,” McBride says during a break. “I’m here to show them a few things, but they are running the show.”
That modesty belies the level of skill McBride imparts to his students, according to those who know his work. Veterinarian Jim Eubank visited Kayenta to work with the students in 2014 and was impressed with their skills. “I’d have hired any one of them in a heartbeat,” says Eubank, who ran a large-animal practice in rural Kansas for many years.
“I think Clyde is a visionary, and I don’t say that lightly,” says Eubank. “He understands what these kids can and will do” to improve their own and others’ communities.
You can’t learn unless you get a little dirty. I think that if kids see it, feel it, touch it, they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives.
A powerful part of the program’s benefit comes from partnerships that McBride has forged. He seems to have connections everywhere: a nationwide network of visiting veterinarians, animal-protection nonprofits, even a guy who delivers top-notch bull semen at minus-320 degrees.
Imparting Deep Skills
The ag-science program teaches skills that reach beyond the animal world. Jasmine Blackwater was a shy 14-year-old when she started it in 2009, but immersing herself in the business end—showing animals, organizing the grand opening of the Agri-Science Center—taught her life skills that smoothed her way at Stanford University, where she is a senior. She plans to attend law school and return to Kayenta to serve Navajo Nation.
She says she enrolled in McBride’s program “for practical reasons, to help my family,” but ended up learning how to work in teams with other students, plan complex events, deal confidently with adults, and make public presentations. That confidence comes in handy when she has to track down a professor for a consultation or advocate for herself in myriad ways on campus. The program also forges a deep connection between real life and school and gave her a strong sense of purpose, Blackwater says.
“You sit in biology class and you don’t think twice about what’s happening at home,” she says. “But you go to ag class, and this grandma shows up with sheep that have been attacked by a dog, and you realize this could be my grandma. You realize, this is what’s outside high school, what I want to come back to. And now I know that I can help these people, because I’ve done it before.”
That connection between school and real life is all-important, in McBride’s view.
“You can’t learn unless you get a little dirty,” he says with a laugh. “I think that if kids see it, feel it, touch it, they’ll remember that the rest of their lives.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2017 edition of Education Week