A public school in Philadelphia is training students in food production and environmental care on an urban farm. The Walter Biddle Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences is a magnet program with 600 students from throughout the city. Located in the upper Roxborough neighborhood, it includes a 130-acre farm with livestock, greenhouses, crops, and pastures.
Saul offers concentrations in Food Science, Floriculture and Greenhouse Management, Landscape Design, Animal Science, and Natural Resource Management. In addition to the agricultural program, students take a full range of high-school, advanced-placement, and college-level courses. The results are impressive. Saul's average graduation rate is 95 percent, with 80 percent going on to college. Other students start their own businesses or are hired into skilled agricultural jobs right after graduation.
Amanda Forstater, a 2009 graduate, recently gave me a thorough and enthusiastic introduction to Saul. Students begin with an intensive summer program, which provides training and experience with the different areas of concentration. This helps incoming freshman select a major and understand the kind of work that will be expected of them. They usually have a particular agricultural career in mind -- from local farming to designing parks, managing athletic fields, and caring for animals.
During the school year, students work on the farm each day. Freshman and sophomores spend one and a half hours, while juniors and seniors spend two and a half. The jobs increase in complexity as the students acquire more training. There is a farmer who lives on-site and manages daily operations.
Students are encouraged to take on leadership responsibilities in school activities, internships, and the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America, but renamed in 1988 to include all agricultural careers). Internships and job-training programs have been set up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the Philadelphia Eagles, Somerton Tanks Farm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, J. Franklin Styer Nurseries, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and many other local and national organizations.
Saul has established a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) partnership with Weaver's Way Cooperative. This provides the neighborhood with local produce as well as education and employment opportunities. Students are closely involved in the process. They can also work for the school farm over the summer. It is common to see them operating tractors, milking cows, and growing produce year-round.
Saul students come from urban homes with little if any farming experience. The program is helping to reestablish links with agriculture that have been lost through years of migration to cities. Along with the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Saul is among the few urban agricultural schools in the country. Visits are encouraged, and based on Amanda’s glowing account, it's very much worth the trip.
(The first two photos were provided by Amanda Forstater. The photo of students pruning trees is from the W.B. Saul website.)