Classes at Clifton Career Development School are little different than most inner-city high schools. For one thing, the school has its own small herd of sheep, allowing students to learn how to feed, care for and even show the wooly creatures.
A magnet school in the heart of Austin, Texas, Clifton Career offers career and technical education classes for students with special needs. Russell Duncum runs the school’s agricultural science program. While the goal of these hands-on classes is to prepare students for meaningful employment when they graduate, Russell says students walk away with much more.
“One of the things that the animal program has brought out in our kids is a sense of caring,” he explains, noting that the skill easily transfers to many workplace and life situations. “For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever had a chance to care for another living thing.”
Russell’s students don’t come from traditional agricultural backgrounds and most know little, if anything, about raising and exhibiting livestock. Through their coursework, they learn ethical livestock handling, animal nutrition and other production-related skills. Then there’s all the intangibles, like teamwork, work ethic, commitment and discipline.
“We didn’t anticipate how the kids would ‘soften’ when they bond with our animals,” Russell notes. He points to one young student – a “hard kid” with plenty of emotional baggage, who was tasked with raising a lamb. The lamb became ill, and the young man spent hours, coaxing him to eat and showering him with love. “When the lamb finally started to respond to treatment, the smiles and jubilation on that young man were priceless,” Russell recalls, admitting the experience still warms his heart.
In the showring, Clifton Career students compete head-to-head with other area youth, without any special accommodations. “The success they achieve there reflects their hard work and demonstrates our kids can accomplish anything,” Russell adds – a simple idea that just might be the biggest life lesson of all.