HALTOM CITY — Shelby Downing and Austin Simmons, upperclassmen at Richland High School, had to find space to raise their animals off-campus for the school’s agricultural science program.Students usually used land borrowed from nearby families interested in promoting programs that teach city kids more about life down on the farm. One student who was raising a steer had to go to her grandparent’s land in Parker County to feed and care for her animal.But that won’t be the case for long.Construction has already started on an ambitious project to convert the former Holiday Skating Rink in Haltom City into a facility where students can raise their animals or participate in field trips and other activities related to agricultural science.“We consider this just as valuable of an educational opportunity as we would computers and technology,” said Mike Seale, the district’s associate superintendent for finance.“We’ve had a strong FFA [Future Farmers of America] and a strong agriculture science program for years. It is something where students have said this is a meaningful science,” he said.Long time comingBirdville searched for suitable property for over a year, but it was difficult to find a site where cities allowed agricultural use, Seale said. The vacant land in nearby North Richland Hills and Richland Hills didn’t provide enough space to raise the animals.Birdville also contacted other districts with agriculture programs, such as Fort Worth, to explore working out a co-op arrangement, but the facilities were full, he said. Ultimately, the district decided it would be more economical to purchase the 1.5-acre site at 2920 Carson Street that includes the 22,816-square-foot former roller rink for about $400,000 and then renovate it in three phases.District spokesman Mark Thomas said the total cost of the project including the property purchase, is approximately $1 million. Bids will go out for the construction, he said. The district does not have firm numbers on what the final price tag may be.The first phase includes creating space to house 75 animals — cattle, goats, lambs, pigs, poultry and rabbits. This part of the project also includes building feed storage, electrical upgrades, security cameras and installing secure access to the building.The second phase involves repaving the parking lot, with the last phase including the construction of classrooms and meeting space. Work should be completed when school starts in the fall.“I’m really excited about this. I’ve shown goats for two years and I’ve been in the agriculture program for three,” Simmons said. Larry Bills, career and technology education coordinator for the district, said the ag facility is a great step forward for Birdville. The program is growing rapidly. Six students participated last year, and 30 are participating this year.“We’ve been using borrowed land from families interested in our Future Farmers of America program, but space is very limited, and things are over-crowded,” he said.If the district were to build an agricultural facility from scratch, the cost would be much higher — $2 million to $3 million, Seal said.Now, Birdville could house animals from other districts, depending on how many Birdville students participate, Seale said.It’s been a struggleRoni Tarver, who teaches animal science at the Birdville Center of Technology and Advanced Learning, said, “We are feeling extremely blessed about the whole situation.” “I’m beside myself; it’s been a struggle trying to house these animals,” she said.Her students raise goats, pigs, and rabbits. The students and their families are responsible for purchasing the animals as well as feeding and caring for them.She said “hands-on” experience is important in teaching ag science.“Learning how to handle animals and trim their hooves will give students far more than showing a PowerPoint,” she saidDowning, a senior at Richland High School, who wants to be a large animal veterinarian, said the program has taught her about responsibility.“I want to be a veterinarian and live in a rural area,” she said.Simmons, who is in his junior year at Richland High, said he is looking forward to raising his goats when Birdville opens the new building next year. He also wants to be a large animal veterinarian.New graduation requirementsUnder House Bill 5, which became law last June, students can have more career path choices, but they can also earn “endorsements” in science, math, engineering and technology. Animal science is considered as one of the certified courses, just like biology or chemistry, Seale said.Bills, who taught agricultural science in Abilene, said the program is all about getting families involved and helping students learn about taking responsibility and time management.“It’s been kind of astounding. Here we are in suburban Tarrant County, and to see our ag program take hold like it has here is encouraging,” Bills said.
Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz