It’s bath day for the pet rats and ferrets at Southeast High School in Wichita.
Kenneth Borja gently lifts one of the rats — Zeus, Poseidon or Hades, it’s hard to tell which — out of his cage. He carries the animal to the sink, lathers him with shampoo and holds the squirming rodent under warm water for a rinse.
“I really didn’t choose this class. I was randomly put into it,” said Borja, a senior. “But I found it to be interesting, so I stayed. . . Now I’ve kind of grown close to the animals and I like taking care of them.”
On the lawn just outside the classroom, sophomore Kayleen Jack and senior Ashley Gillespie are tending the chicken coop, filling water tanks and replacing bedding while about 25 hens scamper around.
Other students harvest peppers, tomatoes and okra from the school’s community garden. Another is building solar panels that will power pumps for the garden’s new koi pond.
“There’s a lot going on every day,” says Joanna Farmer, director of the school’s agriculture program. “I give them their chores, and they get it done.”
When the new Southeast High School opened two years ago on a wide expanse of prairie at 127th Street East and Pawnee, the district launched its first career pathway in agriculture, offering courses in horticulture, animal health and agriscience.
Since then Farmer and her students have expanded the program, building a chicken coop and raising about two dozen chicks last spring. These days, the hens lay about a dozen eggs a day, which Farmer gives away to Southeast students.
“A lot of them have not seen fresh eggs before,” she said. “It shocks them when they open the carton and see green eggs and brown eggs and all the different colors. . . . They all tell me they taste good.”
To help finance the program, students have applied for and received grants from the Wichita Community Foundation, Whole Foods, Tractor Supply Co., Credit Union of America and Future Farmers of America, among others.
“If I see a grant (possibility), I say, ‘Get to work,’ and they do it,” Farmer said.
“Get to work” is a common phrase in this classroom, where a cockatiel named Uma flies free and a Flemish Giant rabbit named Ricky Bobby sleeps in the corner.
Most students enroll because they want to be veterinarians, farmers, ranchers or zookeepers. Some just love animals. All are learning that taking care of living things takes time, patience, sweat and commitment.
Over summer break, Farmer and a group of about eight students went to Southeast every morning to take care of the animals and work in the garden.
“I didn’t mind waking up early and coming out here, because you know it needs to be done and Ms. Farmer needed the help,” said Bailee Thompson, a junior who wants to study veterinary medicine.
“It wasn’t boring. The whole time you had people here, and you could talk and visit with your friends. . . . And I just love the ducks so much.”
The ducks, which live in harmony with the chickens, were a gift from a Southeast High teacher. Most of the animals in Farmer’s classroom were donated or adopted, she said.
“This seems to be the retirement community for pets that people don’t want anymore,” Farmer said.
Along with the practical side of farm life, the students study animal anatomy and physiology. At the start of every year, Farmer assigns each student to build an animal skeleton using hot glue and a variety of dried pasta. One student’s bird skeleton-in-progress features a spaghetti metatarsus and a rigatoni humerus.
“We go through the anatomy of about 15 different animals,” Farmer said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to get it right, but once they’ve learned the major bones, it translates across to all the animals.”
Farmer has taken students on field trips to the Kansas State Fair and Kansas State University to compete in FFA competitions and to see agriculture careers in action.
“First of all, it teaches them where their food comes from, because a lot of them truly don’t know,” she said. “I had a student actually see an egg being laid, and she was in total shock. She couldn’t believe it.”
The hands-on activities — watering plants, feeding chickens, gathering eggs or administering medicine to pets — also teach life lessons, she said.
“A large percentage (of students) want to go into some animal-related career, and for some, it’s just curiosity,” Farmer said. “Here they’re learning about responsibility and what it takes to really do those things.”