Proposed change to Arlington animal-science program draws dismay

Alex Merica addresses Arlington School Board members on Feb. 20, 2020.

A staff proposal to revamp the animal-science program at the Arlington Career Center, including the removal of on-site large non-domesticated animals, is drawing brushback.

The proposal calls for focusing more on smaller, domestic animals at the expense of farm animals, which have been part of the program for years and have come to be a beloved part of the Career Center family.

The proposal has hit a chord – and not a happy one – among some students, who say the program is something that makes Arlington stand out among school systems in the region.

“They’re trying to change us and make us like everyone else, while the purpose of [the school system] is to be unique,” student Alex Merica told School Board members on Feb. 20, as the proposal was formally presented.

Staff said the proposed changes were designed to better align the curriculum with modern career and technical-education learning. But the emotional tug of keeping animals that have been cared for at the facility is what drew speakers to decry the proposal.

“It really hurts me that they want to get rid of these animals – we all put in so much effort [for them],” said Julie Payes, a student at Wakefield High School who takes animal-science courses at the Career Center.

“I just don’t want them to be taken away,” she said.

It wasn’t just students and parents who were critical of the plan.

“I have some serious reservations about the direction we’re going,” School Board member Nancy Van Doren said. “I’m not comfortable with a lot of what I’ve heard.”

Van Doren, who is retiring at the end of the year and is being increasingly assertive when unhappy about the direction of school policies, said the plan appeared to be relegate interaction with animals to a secondary goal.

“What it sounds to me when I hear this is we’re going to be teaching children how to process paperwork and work in an office, rather than handle animals,” she said.

“I wouldn’t say that is what we are changing,” said Christopher Martini, director of career and technical education for the school system. “I don’t think it’s taking the hands-on part off of it.”

The school system could work with partners and cast a net for student internships that would help fill the gap left by the departure of the farm animals, Martini said.

Perhaps attempting to regain their footing as the tide went against them, school staff suggested they would be open to moving the non-domesticated-animal cadre to the Outdoor Lab in Fauquier County, or try to find a suitable location within Arlington. But even that attempt at a concession drew brickbats.

“When you move any kind of animal from one environment to another, there is a stress put upon the animal,” acknowledged School Board Chairman Tannia Talento, trying to keep the meeting on track.

The 800-pound (figurative) gorilla in the room is the pending redevelopment of the Career Center parcel. School Board members next month are expected to consider a preliminary design for the first phase of the expansion project, which is bringing choices like what to do with the animal program to the forefront.

“This is happening because we are building a new facility,” said Talento, who also opted against seeking re-election this year. “When we get the design in March, we have to vote on it, and if that design is not showing space [for all the animals], that is what we’re voting on. That can’t be delayed, is my understanding.”

“So construction is driving instruction,” Van Doren shot back.

Superintendent Cintia Johnson said she would take all the questions and comments under advisement and come back with responses in early March.

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