At Saul High, talented crop of students

Saul's new thoroughbred, Victor, is checked by Janay Alexander (left), Brea Bell (center), and Tryeek Robinson.
Saul's new thoroughbred, Victor, is checked by Janay Alexander (left), Brea Bell (center), and Tryeek Robinson. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: October 22, 2012

It was a crisp autumn morning, and W.B. Saul High was buzzing. And mooing. And barking, and baa-ing.

Swinging a gate closed to keep brown jersey cow Tinker safe in her pen, Saul senior Marcus Bonaparte motioned to the farm fields, greenhouse, orchard, and school buildings on the 150 acres around him - all in the middle of urban Philadelphia.

"There's no other place like this," Bonaparte said of the Roxborough school, set on busy Henry Avenue with cars whizzing by.

True. At no other city school are there two farmers on staff. Nowhere else in the Philadelphia School District will you find students hauling 50-pound feed bags, driving tractors, harvesting eggplant, studying milk produced on site for bacteria, and caring for horses.

(It also has Pennsylvania's largest chapter of FFA, the organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America, and one of the biggest chapters in the country, FFA officials confirmed.)

One of a handful of agricultural high schools nationwide, Saul is one of the largest of its kind. It's long been a below-the-radar gem, a well-regarded city magnet school.

But lately, Saul has been on a roll.

Junior Isaiah Nelson, an aspiring botanist from West Oak Lane, recently won a state agriculture science fair and is headed to nationals - the first Saul student to do so.

And teacher Jessica McAtamney, who has helped develop a large community-supported agricultural (CSA) program at the school, just returned from the White House, where she was honored as a "Champion of Change" for her work with Saul students.

Saul was founded as the Wissahickon Farm School in 1943, and for many years it concentrated mostly on traditional agricultural subjects. And though it is certainly still firmly grounded in those, a recent focus has been on boosting academics, on inquiry-based learning that opens the door to a wider range of careers.

The school offers multiple Advanced Placement courses, and 75 percent of its graduates go on to college. Last year's top student is attending Cornell University's agriculture school.

"We went from cows, sows, and plows to science-based programs," said longtime Saul teacher Guy Amoroso.

In Amoroso's food science class, for instance, he used to teach students how to cut meat. They still learn that, Amoroso said, but now the emphasis is on the science behind it.

Standing in a pen with multiple horses and donkeys on a recent day, equine science teacher Jane Arbasak said classes combine classroom work with hands-on tasks.

As she spoke, her students were grooming the animals. ("Don't get freaked out," she called to a young woman brushing Belle, a quarter horse known for testing tentative students. "She always lifts her leg toward her belly.")

But later, they would sit at desks, studying equine reproduction - relevant because one of the Saul mares is pregnant.

Hands-on learning is valuable, Arbasak said.

"You can talk about leadership, but you really learn it here, getting a horse to trust you," she said.

The school, which requires strong grades for admission, has a diverse student body - 63 percent African American, 23 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic. Ten percent of its students require special-education services, and 62 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

Like all district schools, Saul has been pinched by a brutal series of budgets. It has fewer staff doing more things, principal Tamera Conaway said. Still, its partnerships and grants have insulated it from program losses, and the school has a larger-than-usual freshman class - 160 students, bringing the total school population to 530.

There were 1,100 applicants for this year's freshman class, Conaway said. Many teens have a very hazy notion of what Saul is about, but they sharpen that quickly during an intense, three-week summer program.

"Every kid who comes here says they like animals, but you find out quickly that this isn't a petting zoo," said Conaway. "You find that out when you're shoveling manure or you're chopping down a tree."

Many pupils travel on multiple buses for an hour or more a day to get to Saul. The school has an open campus, with students moving among buildings on both sides of Henry Avenue several times a day.

But "our kids really rise to the occasion," Conaway said.

Saul students said they find themselves picking up bits of knowledge they never knew they would be acquiring.

Such as: "You can feel it when a cow steps on your toe, even if you're wearing steel-toed boots," Bonaparte said. And: When the lettuce you grew at the school appears in your salad in the cafeteria, you feel a particular sense of pride. Also: Animals need to be fed and cared for, even when the weather is bad.

"I walked my sheep in the rain, hail, and snow," said senior Debbie Mayo.

They also become intimately familiar with the distinctive Saul smell, a perfume of manure, barn animals, and schoolbooks.

Nelson - the junior who's on his way to Indianapolis this month to present his project "Can Pokeweed be used as a natural dye?" at the National FFA Agriscience Fair - doesn't mind the smell too much.

He's too busy concentrating on his project, on being president of Saul's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, on focusing on his full course load.

McAtamney, a social worker-turned-teacher who rubbed elbows with White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials last week, described Nelson as "magnetic - well-respected by the other students. He works really hard."

His project started in one of McAtamney's classes last year, when Nelson asked her about a weed he found on the farm. McAtamney asked Nelson to figure it out, and he did - identifying the name and creating his own dye from it.

He's not nervous about representing the district on the national stage. Nelson, 16, said he's just excited.

"I just want to make Saul proud," he said. "Everyone is cheering me on."

The spotlight is nice, said McAtamney. And so is a renewed focus on urban agriculture.

"It's been happening at Saul for so long," McAtamney said. "But now it's hip, which is great for us."

Students discuss W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences at

Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

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