Philadelphia — home to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that “Rocky” so triumphantly mastered. But the city of 1.56 million also offers another unique gem that many might not know about … the Walter Biddle Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences.
The Philadelphia agricultural program was actually founded in 1943, when classes were held at the Shallcross School. However, the school moved several times and took on several different names until 1966 when it was formally named in honor of Walter Biddle Saul. A prominent attorney in the city of Philadelphia, Saul is best remembered for his distinguished and dedicated service as the President of the Philadelphia Board of Education and his staunch support of the programs of Wissahickon Farm School/ Philadelphia High School of Agriculture and Horticulture.
Saul is the first (and remains the only) living person to have had a public high school named after him in the city of Philadelphia.
Today Saul’s school campus is spread across 130 acres in the upper Roxborough section of Philadelphia on the rolling hills of the Wissahickon Valley bordering Fairmount Park.
The campus is also home to 530 Philadelphia students that enroll each year.
“We have students from all parts of the city,” said David Ruvarac, Walter Biddle Saul High School AgriScience Teacher and FFA Advisor. “Many students have to take several different public transit busses to arrive.”
Once the students arrive on campus they have access to a working dairy barn and herd; a beef, sheep, and horse herd; a community supported agriculture vegetable garden and orchard; an aquaponics and hydroponics lab; an aquaculture/reptile room; a small animal lab; greenhouses; and more.
“Since we have a full-functioning farm, students are able to work with the large and small animals as well as various different fields and environmental areas,” Ruvarac said. “Student use these areas to help build a foundation in STEM and other areas of personal and professional development. Many of the academic teachers also utilize agricultural competencies and areas in their class to help offer a well-rounded curriculum.”
Walter Biddle Saul High School offer agricultural courses to their students in four different majors or content areas: Food Science, Environmental Science, Animal Science, and Horticulture. They do not offer any electives, so students only enroll in academic and agricultural classes. Freshman take six periods of academic and one period of agriculture, sophomores and juniors take five periods of academic and two periods of agriculture, and seniors take four periods of academic and three periods of agriculture each day.
“Saul offers students in an urban area the opportunity to learn about agriculture and all that it entails. Many of our students come with very little if any knowledge. Most have never seen a cow or other large animal in person, or know where their food, and fiber comes from,” Ruvarac said “We are able to show students that agriculture is all around them. We also open their eyes to other careers besides being a veterinarian or zoo keeper.”
Each year Saul continues to update curriculum by renovating facilities and offering students content and areas as close to industry standards as possible. The school is currently in the process of working with several colleges and universities to offer credits to students.
Since Walter Biddle Saul is an affiliate chapter in the state all of their students are also enrolled in FFA, where the school has excelled. The chapter has had many animals that place and end up in the sale at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. The school also exhibits at the Philadelphia Flower Show where they win numerous awards each year. Ruvarac said the students have also done very well at Envirothon and at various different FFA Career Development Events.
Other cities have taken note of Saul’s success. Several other schools have visited Saul over the years to look at their facilities, curriculum, and majors.
“The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Chicago, Illinois and John Bowne High School in Queens, New York developed their program based off of our school as well,” Ruvarac said. “There have been other school districts in other states — North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona to name a few — that have also looked at Saul for ideas for schools or programs in their states.”
But most importantly, students at Saul High School realize that agricultural education is a privilege. Here’s what some students had to say:
I chose to attend Saul because I’ve always loved animals and I saw that they offered an animal science program. I knew that it would strengthen my knowledge on animals and set me up on the path to my veterinary career. It gives me the chance to have more experience than others who might have attended another high school that doesn’t offer the same opportunities.
My time at Saul has made me more interested in agriculture. I was able to explore different aspects of it including fields in animal science, horticulture, food science, and environmental science. All of them are very diverse and animal science has definitely drawn me in the most.
Other students in the Philadelphia area should consider attending Saul because it offers many different programs that aren’t available at your typical city high school. It’s one of the only agricultural high schools in the whole United Sates and it’s a privilege to have it so close to home. Saul gives you the chance to have experience in agricultural activities whether or not that’s what you’re going to pursue in your future. They give you valuable skills that you can use in various situations.
Saul has made me a better agvocate for ag because I see how agriculture is so involved in our everyday lives and everyday jobs. It helps the world continue to function and it’s very important as there are new issues coming up every day that we can solve using agriculture and agricultural techniques.
If you get a chance to visit Philly, you might want to add this school to your “must-see” list.