This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Isaiah Orellana’s school day starts early, hours-before-dawn early.
"I get up at 5 o’clock. I shower. I clean up after my dogs, whatever mess they made, and then commute to school," he said.
It’s a commute that would daunt many adults.
Leaving his Juniata Park home, Orellana catches the El to the Frankford Terminal and then begins a 60-minute ride aboard a bus specifically designed to shuttle North Philly kids to one of the Philadelphia School District’s most unusual options: W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Roxborough.
"I heard it was an agricultural school, and I was really interested. I said, ‘You know what, I like animals. Let me see what this is about,’" said Orellana. "And when they took me on the tour, I was just like, ‘Wow, I really like this. They have a farm. They have animals. They have a meat lab. And then just a regular school on top of that. This is great.’"
Orellana, a junior who aims to become a veterinary technician, said the school – with its lush farmland and grazing livestock overlooking the Wissahickon woods – takes him a world away from the urban landscapes he’s known.
"I come from a poor family, basically. We moved to Philly, and we don’t have any family in the area," he said. "Everyone kinda lives in New York or New Jersey, and we just struggle financially."
A cow to feed
Weaving through the cattle in Saul’s dairy barn, the aroma of sweet nutrients – read: dung – thick in the air, junior Mitchell Valentin asked where else a student would find this first-period assignment: Feed the cows.
"Like 8:26, we get into class, and we put our boots on, and we head out," he said. "I talk to my friends. I’m like, ‘How’s your high school?’ They just sit down. They just learn. Here we have a thing where we cross the street and we feed cows. Not everyone has a cow to feed."
Not everyone has a pig to fatten, a sheep to shear, or a horse to groom either.
With the rush of Henry Avenue traffic whirring in the distance, West Oak Lane’s Bre’ana Cooper skillfully brushed a chestnut-brown mare, chatting casually with the animal as if in a salon.
Interacting with horses is a lot like interacting with teenagers, Cooper said.
"I’ll just be like, ‘I’m having a bad day. We’re probably both having bad days, that’s why you’re acting like that. We’re both having a hard time, but we’re going to get through it together.’"
Saul, of course, isn’t all mooing, grooming and learning how to be a farmhand.