New kid at school
FORT WORTH — Almost everyone has met the new kids at Nolan Catholic High School. Seven young goats have taken up residence on the Fort Worth campus and been welcomed by students, parents, faculty, and staff. The sixty chicks that arrived in late January were given a similar reception.
At first, the livestock may seem out of place at the college prep school. What’s a new barn and chicken brooder doing among the recently built, state-of-the-art facilities for engineering, broadcast technology, and the arts?
Nolan is partnering with the other Catholic schools in Tarrant County to offer a new, hands-on opportunity to learn about agriculture, science, art, and health through a century-old organization: 4-H.
St. John the Apostle Catholic School in North Richland Hills is one of five elementary/middle schools participating in 4-H to date. The learning-by-doing programs offered by 4-H dovetail nicely with the school, which already has a garden, worm farm, bird and bat houses, and chickens. Plus, when Principal Amy Felton was a student in Oklahoma, she participated in 4-H, making memories and lifelong friends as she raised and showed sheep.
The St. John the Apostle campus is routinely visited by a hawk, fox, and owl, plus opossums and raccoons. Felton plans to add two more chickens and hatch turkeys in the spring, and she would like to introduce goats to the campus. “It’s amazing outdoor learning. We took what God gave us, and we’re just adding to it and teaching the children,” Felton explained.
“God created all of this. We’re able to give children the opportunity to learn about God’s creation in different ways,” Felton continued.
Cadence Nielsen and Mercedes Ramirez are eighth-grade students and co-presidents of 4-H at St. John the Apostle School.
Nielsen noted that learning to be kind and respectful to God’s natural world, including animals, encourages the students to be kind and respectful to each other.
Although 4-H may be best known for agricultural pursuits, it offers students the opportunity to learn life skills such as healthy nutrition and financial literacy, as well as pursue hobbies including jewelry making, sewing, and robotics.
Felton appreciates that students can select from various 4-H activities, participate in an online introduction to the subject, then complete the activity at home as a family. Currently 4-H offers 166 different home activities for families on its website.
“A long-term objective is that our families come together and enjoy doing activities as a family and teaching [their children] skills they will use for the rest of their lives, with God immersed in that,” said Felton.
Learning is not just for kids, said the principal. For example, Father Jack McKone, pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish, will teach photography to club members and their parents.
Nielsen and Ramirez, the 4-H co-presidents, have participated in food and nutrition activities as well as sewing, painting, and drawing.
Ramirez said she has enjoyed “learning new life skills, new experiences and opportunities, even during quarantine.” She and her siblings have applied these skills, cooking a few healthy meals for the family.
Holy Spirit of the barn
In its first year at Nolan Catholic High School, the 4-H club has accrued about 25 students. However, the entire student body, whether participating in 4-H or not, has learned about the ethics and responsibilities of raising animals on campus. The first rule of goat keeping: don’t feed them Cheetos.
In addition to proper nutrition, exercise is key to a healthy, show-worthy goat. Some student athletes pair with a goat to sprint up the stadium hill, improving conditioning in both the two-legged and four-legged competitors.
Leah Rios, president of Nolan, sees animal husbandry as an extension of a pro-life viewpoint. She said, “We’re taking on the responsibility to raise an animal to feed people. We have to take the very best care of it and make sure the life that it has while we’re raising it is a good life, with exercise and the best quality of feed.”
It’s a 110-pound commitment to tend to the animals twice each day, seven days a week regardless of weather, school schedules, or personal situations.
The students who show the goats put in hours of work, staying after dismissal until dark and arriving on show day at 5 a.m.
After school, Kate Farry, a sophomore, changes quickly from Nolan plaid into overalls and work boots, then slips a halter on a goat and begins walking it around campus.
Her goat was sick when it arrived, so her first task was to restore the goat to health. Now her efforts are focused on daily care, grooming, and learning how to show a goat. Farry said, “I’ve learned a lot. I expected hard work, but it’s harder than I thought.”
Rios said parents tell her with amazement that their children who don’t take out the trash at home are happy to be at school cleaning out the goat barn.
Rios credits the “Holy Spirit of this barn” with increasing the students’ motivation to be at school, improving their focus, and relieving some stresses of teen years.
The animals fit into the outdoor learning approach at Nolan, in which every department takes their students outside to appreciate and learn from the beauty of the natural features on campus.
Emily Breclaw, outdoor learning specialist at Nolan, said the school plans to build a greenhouse next to the goat barn so that next year the students can participate in the horticulture programs of 4-H.
She said Nolan’s 4-H club members already submit entries in photography, jewelry making, engineering, and culinary arts to competitions through the Tarrant County Extension Office. With the “huge range” of opportunities to explore whatever subjects interest a student, Breclaw expects club participation to grow.
The novelty of the animals on campus may have faded, but the students’ fascination has only expanded. Several students are shadowing the club members who show goats so they will be prepared to step into those boots next year.
“We’re going to need a bigger barn,” Breclaw said with a laugh.
Head, heart, hands, and health are the eponymous four Hs, but leaders and students participating in the club have found friendship, fun, family, and focus. St. John the Apostle Principal Felton said she is delighted that Tarrant County Catholic schools can offer 4-H “to bring back the unity of a club to learn something and have fun.”