Feature stories

Counting their chickens

Students in John Bowne HS agriculture program get farmland experience

Senior David Rodriguez checks in on Bowne’s 225 chickens.

Senior David Rodriguez checks in on Bowne’s 225 chickens.

Teacher Patrycja Jamiolkowska (left) gives a goat a scratch.

Teacher Patrycja Jamiolkowska (left) gives a goat a scratch.

A kiddie pool doubles as a bathtub for a curious alpaca.

A kiddie pool doubles as a bathtub for a curious alpaca.

It’s the morning after a long weekend, and there’s plenty of work to be done on the farm. The horses need grooming. The chickens have laid hundreds of eggs. The alpacas are craving a bath. And down in the basement, where feathers and seeds litter the floor, the exotic birds appear to be recovering from the effects of a three-day-long party.

They say a farmer’s work is never done, and no one knows this better than the students in the agriculture program at John Bowne HS in Flushing, Queens. In addition to their academic classes, on this four-acre plot of land tucked behind the Long Island Expressway there are apple trees to be pruned, goat pens to be mucked and wheelbarrows to be fixed.

“It’s completely different from a typical high school experience,” says senior Julia Rodriguez. “I would never think I’d hold a ball python or work with rats on a daily basis. It’s incredible, and it’s exactly what brought me to Bowne.”

Bowne’s unique program — the only one of its kind in New York City — dates back nearly 100 years to World War I, when city students were recruited to replace upstate farm workers who were serving in the military. Today, more than 500 “Aggies,” as they’re known, learn alongside Bowne’s nine agriculture teachers, three of whom are alumni of the program.

Teacher Russ Nitchman (back) pitches in to prune trees in the apple orchard.Teacher Russ Nitchman (back) pitches in to prune trees in the apple orchard.

“On a daily basis I’m shocked that I get to be a part of this,” says teacher Krystal Perrotti. “When you see that accomplishment on a student’s face when, for example, they get a horse to lift a foot for the first time, that’s the million-dollar feeling. It’s an incredible thing we get to do.”

Teachers at Bowne strive to help their students “dip their toes in a little bit of everything,” says animal science teacher Patrycja Jamiolkowska, an alumna. “Any kid who’s interested in anything in agriculture can get that experience here.”

Those experiences run the gamut from breeding hybrid snakes in the reptile lab to designing floral arrangements to assisting with livestock births. During the summer between their freshman and sophomore years, in “land lab,” each student nurtures a 15-foot plot of land to grow vegetables and plants.

It’s the morning after a rainstorm, and that means more shoveling to keep the grIt’s the morning after a rainstorm, and that means more shoveling to keep the ground dry for the animals.

“Ordinary kids were chilling in their rooms, and I came here every day to work on my plot,” says senior David Rodriguez. “It was pretty motivating to not only think about myself but about the well-being of the animals on the farm and to provide vegetables for my family.”

Many students who love animals enter the program with dreams of becoming veterinarians.

“It was the only career I knew related to animals,” says junior Nicole Perilla. “I thought it was the only option.”

But the Aggie teachers, who represent a variety of different specialties, make it their business to open students’ eyes to a world of career possibilities. Aggie students have gone on to work as animal groomers, landscape architects, zookeepers, florists, veterinary technicians and a host of other positions.

During a research assignment in her sophomore year, Nicole fell in love with agricultural mechanics. Teacher Russ Nitchman, who grew up on a farm in New Jersey and studied landscape architecture in college, made her the junior assistant manager of the tractor shed. Nicole now plans to major in Agricultural Equipment Technology in college and dreams of owning her own repair shop.

“It’s kind of obscure” for a girl from Elmhurst, Queens, she acknowledges. But “it’s what I want to do for my whole life.”

Senior Julia Rodriguez, holding a rat, calls Bowne’s program “a perfect fit.”Senior Julia Rodriguez, holding a rat, calls Bowne’s program “a perfect fit.”

After two years of introductory material, students choose to specialize in either plant or animal science for their junior and senior years, during which they take a double class in their chosen field. The program is further divided into honors, general education and special education tracks.

“This is our last chance to make an impact on their lives, and we want to prepare them as best as possible,” says Tamara Stanford, who teaches special education students. “They leave here with a resumé and career guidance.”

Plant science teacher Rebecca Cossa, who worked for 15 years at various farms, nurseries and greenhouses, was inspired to get her teaching certificate after learning about Bowne’s program.

Plant science students assemble corsages that will be sold to promgoers.Plant science students assemble corsages that will be sold to promgoers.

“The fact that there was a public school — not a private school or a charter school, where it’s easier to have access to funds — doing things that haven’t been seen before,” she says, “that’s what drew me in.”

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