Sheep, goats and education at AGCS

Photo by Chris Barber Rambo, left, and his favored ewe Nuala stand in the snow in their pen at Avon Grove Charter School.
Photo by Chris Barber Animal caretaker Bill Aff gives Rambo the Ram a quick pat on the chin, a sign of affection that the animal appears to enjoy.

By CHRIS BARBER

cbarber@21st-centurymedia.com

LONDON GROVE -- The family just keeps growing at the Avon Grove Charter School. Most recently four sheep and two goats joined the ducks, geese, fish and rabbits that help the students there understand the environment and balance of nature through discovery learning.

Growth has become a habit at AGCS. In the past several years the school has added a green house, a pond and a new STEM building. This year in the rear of the back field, the keeper of the animals, Bill Aff, 60, has built a shed, pasture and gated pen for the new arrivals, where they await his visit and the attention of caring students everyday.

The Shetland sheep are three ewes and a ram. The staff and students are hoping that young ones will be born, and Aff says he believes Nuala, the ewe favored by Rambo the Ram may even be pregnant now with a due date in May. The other two ewes, Lollipop and Aiofe, have been apparently unresponsive to Rambo’s advances, he added

The sheep share a pen with the alpine goats Lucy and Chompy. They are both females, but in the future, Aff said, they might consider breeding them as well.

At first when the six animals came to the back field, said Aff, the sheep and goats lived in friendly harmony. But as time went by, Rambo got a little aggressive toward the goats, and they had to be separated by a thin fence.

The students have taken an interest in the sheep and goats and help care for them. They often ask Aff when he is inside how the animals are doing.

Aff said that sometimes students with minor disciplinary problems experience improvement in their behavior by caring for the animals. They also learn how the sheep and goats fit into Nature’s balance and how they provide materials and food for humans.

He said in the spring they will be shearing the sheep, and the students will learn how to card the wool, spin it and knit it into simple scarves and hats. From the goats they will learn milking and making cheese.

Additionally, the students are planning on constructing a jungle gym for the goats because the creatures love to climb.

The sheep-goat habitat has also engendered some creative activities for the students.

Aff says since there is no water pipeline out to the pen and shed, they must take water out every day. Given the cold wether that has befallen the area this year, he needed to develop a device to keep water from freezing when surrounded by cold temperatures. He challenged the eighth graders to come up with something, and a group of them put together a combination trash can-insulation-soil with hole in the ground that kept the water liquid for quite awhile.

“The kids were not being tested. They did it out of the their hearts using their imaginations and simple tools,” he said.

Aff, a former contractor, said he was originally hired as a bus driver for the school, but he volunteered to help Head of School Kevin Brady build housing for the animals while Brady pursued grants to expand the environmental program. To date, Aff has built the greenhouse and various other structures on the property, including the sheep-goat habitat. He has also planted four kinds of grasses in the pen area for the students to study which grass grows fastest and which contains the best nutrition for the animals.

Aff also provides care for the animals, who recognize him and come to him for food and patting.

Ever since the school opened in 2002, there has been an emphasis on conservation and environmental education. Among other things, the students have grown trout eggs in the classrooms and liberated the young fish into the White Clay Creek. They also have built houses for bats and birds on the back lot and grew a variety of plants. Each year they put on an environmental fair in the spring.

Brady says he is an advocate of discovery and hands-on education. When there is a lesson to be learned, he gets involved in projects like measuring the height of a tree with a toy helicopter or taking a hike to the stream to study aquatic life.

In the green house, the students grow plants of all varieties including lettuce that roots in water, getting its nourishment from the waste products of tilapia fish that swim below -- hydroponics.

There is also a habitat for ducks, rabbits and geese that the students care for and feed. Many of the students come in over the summer to continue their care of the animals.

Aff said Brady is constantly looking for and generating new ideas for environmental education. One idea in the works is to have a farm stand from which people can buy produce, fish, duck eggs, wool, milk and cheese.

If things go according to plan, they will be starting a bee colony soon.

The proceeds from the stand would help support the costs of feed and care of the animals, he said.

“I think the kids get a lot of pl;easure from contributing to the health and welfare of the animals, and it leads into other questions. They use their imaginations and creativity,” he said.