Offering an experience that connects students to the community, challenge them in academics, give them hands-on experiences in the fields of science and agriculture, and prepares them for their future is what students find most appealing about W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences.
Located at 7100 Henry Ave., Saul sits on a 130-acre campus. On one side of Henry Avenue are academic, agriculture, greenhouses, physical education/health and small animal laboratory buildings bordered by an arboretum and athletic fields.
On the opposite side of Henry Avenue is the working farm, which houses poultry, dairy, swine, sheep, horses and the school’s meat science program. These buildings are bordered by the school’s golf course, nursery, field crops and pasture area for the livestock.
“We’re constantly looking for new ways to enhance what we’re doing so it can go along with how agriculture is moving forward in the United States,” said principal Tamera Conaway. “We recently got a grant from the Philadelphia Horticulture Society for an orchard that includes figs and various berries. Mrs. McAtamney and the Nature Conservancy got a $200,000 grant to create a green space in our parking area outside of the school. When it’s done it will be outdoor classrooms that will include a pond. The school district put up webcams in our land and horse barns, so people can watch the animals give birth.
“As for academics, the students are getting hands-on experience in areas that they chose to concentrate on whether it be environmental science, food science, animal science, or horticulture, landscape and design,” she added. “We are having more students majoring in these fields when they go on to college. We just want to prepare our students for the next level and make sure they will be ready for the different job opportunities in agriculture today.”
In urban gardening, students in Jessica McAtamney’s class were outside doing winter bed preparations for the peppers for the upcoming winter months.
“This is just one aspect of the curriculum,” McAtamney said. “The students will learn how to transplant, how to direct seed, learn how to identify and learn how to weed. They learn how to cover crop, how to spread compost and make compost. They are also learning about integrated pest management.
“The students aren’t just growing just to learn, but it’s incorporated in their cafeteria,” she added. “The food goes back to the community and the community buys it. The school district supports what’s going on here. They actually contractually buy the vegetables back. We’re one of the few schools that can incorporate vegetables that are grown here at the garden and put it back into the food line.”
Sophomore Jeffrey Marreno says that the urban gardening class allows students to make a difference in a unique way.
“We have malnourished communities in Philadelphia, so urban gardening allows us to help the community,” Marreno said. “We grow produce and plants that we give back to the community. We’re applying what we’re learning and using it to help out with a greater cause. It also allows us to interact with the community and let them know of all the great things we are doing at Saul. We’re making a difference in a huge way.”
Students who major in horticulture receive in-depth lessons on plants, landscaping, parks and design.
“A lot of the areas that we touch on deal with designing, installing and taking care of a landscape,” said horticulture teacher Lisa Blum. “Students learn about the trees, shrubs, flowers and the grasses. We also talk about the health of the plants like the nutrition, soil, environment, water, photosynthesis and the process plants need to do well. My particular area in horticulture is the greenhouse.
“The kids start plants from seeds. They take cuttings and they grow plants and get them ready for the Philadelphia Flower Show,” she added. “We have a huge fair in May where we sell a lot of annuals, vegetables and fruit plants. It’s really all about looking at the plant, how it’s used, producing them and keeping them helping. A lot of the students don’t have green areas around them, so here they have a chance to see what the potential is and appreciate the beauty that is around them.”
In addition to participating in the Philadelphia Flower Show, Saul also offers students multiple internship opportunities with community organizations such as Longwood Gardens and the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I did the internship with the Phillies twice,” said senior Mercer Wright. “When we’re at school we test out the machinery and we get to know more about the plants and landscape, but with the Phillies internship it took everything a step farther. They taught us how to use power shears and techniques for trimming and cutting. I’m definitely going to go to college and major in the agriculture field. The three areas I’m looking at are marine, plant or environmental science.”
Senior Belem Velasquez really enjoys being in the horticulture program.
“My experiences in the program and the internships have been amazing,” Velasquez said. “It’s fascinating to me how something so simple can grow into something so big and beautiful. I’ve gotten so many offers from people who want me to come in and work with them. This is something that I want to continue to do. I want to major in plant biology or pathology — maybe something in floral culture, so I can open up a business and continue to help people.”