Ag high schools draw urban students to animal care

City students learn about agriculture beyond farms, veterinary careers
Published on February 01, 2010
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Chamia Chatman shovels dried manure and hay off the floor of one of her high school's animal enclosures following a lecture on common animal diseases. 

The 16-year-old is interested in becoming a veterinary surgeon, although that interest is split between large and small animal medicine. On Dec. 7, 2009, she was among nearly 30 high school students cleaning animal pens, feeding livestock, and walking in a small pasture among horses, cattle, and sheep at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.

Jazmin Smiley, 16, scratches the nose of one of the horses at the
Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. The school's animals
include horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, pheasants, tilapia, and laying

The animals at the school range from farmed fish to cattle, and the students learn how they can apply their agricultural education in urban environments. The school aims to provide opportunities in agriculture for a diverse population of students, and it may help increase diversity in agricultural veterinary medicine.

Dr. Joan White, who teaches junior and senior animal science classes, said her school gives urban high school students opportunities for careers or further study in fields such as food sciences, veterinary sciences, biosciences, plant sciences, and agronomy.

"They're taught from day one that this is not a farming school and that agriculture touches their lives every day in some fashion," Dr. White said.

In fact, the Chicago school's mission includes providing opportunities for diverse students across the city to study agriculture, develop marketable skills, develop college-level competence, and "change the image of urban agriculture."

Tom Hansen, 16, said, between carrying loads of hay with a pitchfork, that he is also interested in becoming a veterinarian. And he—like Chatman—has not narrowed his interests to a particular type of practice.

"I just like taking care of animals," Hansen said.

Hansen has worked with a variety of animals at the school, and he thinks he could empathize with pet owners because of his experiences with the deaths of two dogs he owned.

"I know how they feel when they lose something they love," Hansen said.

More students—particularly those who enjoy hands-on activities with the school's animals—hope to become veterinary technicians after graduation, Dr. White said. For example, Stephanie Laboy, 17, who was sweeping an animal enclosure, said she has a passion for caring for animals, and she has long wanted to be a veterinary technician.

Others show interest in careers related to animals but outside veterinary medical care.

Jazmin Smiley, 16, wants to attend law school and work as an attorney focused on veterinary and animal law. Documentaries on farming have piqued her interest in animal rights and handling, and she wants to work, for example, toward improving standards of animal care at slaughter.

The Chicago school is not alone in increasing urban students' interests in animal agriculture.

Wendy Shapiro, principal at the Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Philadelphia, said one or two students from each class of 100 to 140 students at her school will become a veterinarian.

"What we're seeing is more students actually are geared into the vet tech arena," Shapiro said, adding that an increasing number of postsecondary schools focused on veterinary technician training have increased recruitment at her school.

The Philadelphia high school campus includes eight buildings in the city with a full dairy supported by Land-O-Lakes Inc. and beef cattle, sheep, donkeys, horses, dogs, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, and rats. Students rotate between animal and plant sciences before choosing a focus area, and take responsibility for the care of animals and plants at the school.

"They are fully responsible for the care and the maintenance of the grounds, the barn, the animals—which are overseen by the various teachers in that area as well as two full-time farmers that work here," Shapiro said.

Saul students also took five top awards in a contest sponsored by the state chapter of the FFA National Organization in 2009.

The Chicago school accepts, by lottery, about 150 of the 1,500 students who apply annually, Dr. White said, and many are pushed to the school by parents who see it as a cleaner, safer alternative to other nearby public schools. The Philadelphia high school, however, has an application and interview process, and all students have to show an interest in agriculture to attend.

"The students who come here are students who really understand that they're going to be working either with animals or with the land, and that's the kind of thing they like to do," Shapiro said.

Shapiro said her students are taught to think for themselves, and those in animal science classes work with veterinarians directly. She thinks their willingness to investigate will lead them to great scientific developments and implementation of scientific thinking in their careers.

"We have kids that are bold, and they're willing to ask, 'Why?' or 'Why did it happen that way?' or 'How did you do that?'" Shapiro said.

Dr. White said that for many of her incoming students, their only contact with veterinary medicine came from visits to pet clinics inside the city. With her classes, they understand more about production medicine or veterinary careers in public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Her students help her inseminate cows, move sheep, and clip hooves, and become experienced in animal husbandry prior to graduation. They also participate in dissections and necropsies, such as one for a sheep that died in 2008 when its uterus prolapsed as it gave birth.

"They've touched everything, they've moved them all, they've fed them, they've cleaned them, they've taken care of them," Dr. White said.

The school is also building its biotechnology curriculum and laboratory.

Dr. White encourages students interested in working with animals to become veterinarians, and she has noticed a rise in the number of students interested in veterinary medicine during her eight years at the school. About a third of the students in one of her junior-level classes want careers in veterinary medicine, she said.

"I don't know if that's a fluke this year or the word is out in the city that, yes, there's a vet that teaches over at the ag school, and if you want to do veterinary medicine, she will teach you not only how to deal with dogs and cats," Dr. White said. "We've got cows, horses, sheep, goats, and chickens this year, too, so come here and you'll get a nice basis for going on to college."