New AISD Ag Center already making impact

Agricultural Science Center

When Kyle Durr was an Arlington High School student taking agriculture classes, he wanted to raise animals. Since he didn’t have a place to keep them, he posted a sign in a local feed store seeking a place to board a heifer and a goat.

The sign worked, but raising animals made for long days. Early every morning Durr got up to go look after his heifer, which was kept in Dalworthington Gardens, and then his goat, which stayed in Pantego – all before getting to school at 7:30.

He loved it though and eventually became an agriculture teacher himself – at his alma mater, Arlington High School.

When he returned to AHS as a teacher, nothing had changed. His students also had to pay local people with property to house their animals.

“As a teacher, I had to go to random people’s houses to check on all the animals,” Durr said.

That all changed in October 2017 when the new bond-funded AISD Agricultural Science Center opened.

The Agricultural Science Center

“I would have had so much more success if I’d had this as a student,” Durr said, with maybe a little envy, about the new Agricultural Science Center.

At least he gets to teach in the new 23,000 square-foot facility.

The building includes 54 flexible-fencing pens for goats and sheep, 14 heifer pens, rabbit pens, an animal exercise area, two large classrooms and a metal construction lab.

The facility is also net-zero, with solar panels, a wind turbine and rain water storage tanks. The solar panels are already producing more than enough power to run the facility and are actually putting the excess electricity back on the grid. (Read more about the Ag Center's energy efficiency.)

And built on a large site, expansion is an option for the future if needed.

The future was and is very much behind the planning and vision that went into making the Ag Center a reality. Durr and Ginger Polster, principal of the new AISD Dan Dipert Career and Technical Center and the Ag Center, assisted in the planning and design and were able to offer their expertise to the architects.

Smack in the middle of the Metroplex, the AISD’s ag program isn’t traditional agriculture with acres and acres of land. But even in the urban setting, agriculture is just as important.

“From the clothes you wear to the food you eat, agriculture is the foundation,” said Polster.

“We have to think about ag differently,” she said. “Students need to gain the understanding of where our food supply comes from and what it’s going to look like in 10 years – and how it can be sustained. What does ag look like for the next generation?”

Polster wants students to get the big picture and participate in hands-on, real-world agriculture. She envisions the Ag Center as a place where students learn how ag works today, but also engage in non-traditional, cutting-edge ag methods that will revolutionize the industry in the future.

With rising populations but decreasing farm land in much of the world, non-traditional and new ag methods are growing in importance.

“That’s the future,” Polster said.

OPPORTUNITIES

While the Ag Center offers a lot of possibilities for the future, it is already providing many new opportunities for AISD students today. Students are getting to learn and experience agriculture in a setting designed specifically for that.

Most importantly, the new facility opened ag education to all high school students in the district. Previously, only AHS and Martin High School had ag programs. Now students from all AISD high schools can – and do – attend classes at the new facility.

It also opened welding to all AISD students. Previously, Lamar and Seguin high schools did not have welding at all, and welding classes at other schools were often too full to accommodate all interested students. But now, introduction to welding is taught in the Ag Center’s metal lab and is open to all district students. If a student decides to pursue welding further, he or she can take more advanced classes at the new Career and Technical Center.

The Ag Center doesn’t just offer more students access to ag education, it also offers a significantly better educational experience than what used to be possible at AHS and Martin, along with additional courses.

To start with, the classrooms at the Ag Center are much better than the old ones. Besides being brand new, Durr said his classroom now is two-and-a-half times bigger than what he had at AHS.

Even better than the size is what’s right outside the classroom – animals.

“It’s pretty hard to teach an animal class using just a poster of a cow,” Durr said, speaking from experience.

But now classes are “live labs,” as Polster described them. Teachers and students can examine the animals and check vitals during class.

“We have a wealth of resources,” Durr said.

The Ag Center is a great space for classes, but for many students, the best thing it offers is a free place to keep animals.

Free housing is what makes raising an animal possible for many students. Animals are expensive, and students foot 100 percent of the cost, from buying the animals to feeding and caring for them. On top of that – before the Ag Center – most students had to pay to board their animals somewhere. Thanks to the Ag Center, that cost has been eliminated, making raising an animal more affordable and realistic.

Durr gave the example of a student from Seguin who lives in an apartment but will raise a goat next year. Thanks to the Ag Center, he has a place to keep it. Another new ag student from Seguin participated in the Fort Worth Calf Scramble this year and won $500 to purchase a heifer. She’ll get the heifer next school year and keep it at the Ag Center. Before the Ag Center, neither of those students would have had the opportunity to take ag classes at Seguin, much less raise an animal.

Being able to keep their goats and heifers at the Ag Center isn’t just better for students, it’s also better for the animals. The Ag Center’s pens and facilities are an improvement over what most had in the past, allowing for a healthier living environment. Plus, the ag teachers are right there and can keep a close eye on the animals’ health and well-being. And students have ample access to their animals as the facility is open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. – and sometimes later.

The Ag Center can also host livestock shows, something the AISD couldn’t do in the past. Just two months after opening, the Ag Center hosted its first livestock show in December, the Arlington Winter Classic.

Experiences like raising animals and participating in livestock shows add significantly to the education in the classroom and offer invaluable lessons in areas like responsibility, entrepreneurship and leadership.

“A lot of learning happens outside the classroom,” Durr said.

Future Farmers of America is another big part of that. The organization provides students a wealth of opportunities and learning experiences that help with career development and teach leadership. Previously, only AHS and Martin had chapters of FFA, but now the two chapters have merged to create a districtwide chapter open to all students, with meetings held at the Ag Center. Participation immediately doubled last year and will likely continue to grow.

GROWTH

The Ag Center is already fostering greater interest in ag education among Arlington students. In 2016-2017, the AISD had only three ag teachers. But due to an increasing number of student course requests for agriculture, that number grew to nine last year and will reach 10 for the 2018-2019 school year.

Courses at the Ag Center include ag mechanics, intro to welding, wildlife management, livestock production and veterinary medical applications. A vet assistant practicum, which includes a vet tech certification, will be added this school year.

“We’d like to add more courses based on student interest, courses like range management and a student-run orchard and garden,” Durr said. “This program is only going to grow.”

It’s already growing, and growing fast. In fact, the Ag Center is already maxed out for next year with 559 students enrolled to attend classes at the new facility.

Those students, and many more after them, will all have it much better than their teacher Mr. Durr did when he was a student.

But Durr couldn’t be happier about that.