LEDYARD, Conn. (AP) — Brittany Fuchs' school day starts a good half hour before the bell rings.
Every morning at 7 a.m. — and for a half hour after school and twice on weekends — Fuchs trudges out to the barn behind Ledyard High to greet, feed and walk a one-month-old Holstein calf named Annabelle.
"I went from wanting to work at an aquarium to, like, wanting to own my own dog kennel, and now I'm into the dairy," she said.
The 17-year-old senior from Norwich has always had a love of animals. At Ledyard's Agricultural Science program, she and 245 other students are putting that love into practice.
They're from 12 towns, with about 150 from outside the Ledyard school district. They're city kids, farm kids, suburban kids, kids who love dogs, kids with a green thumb and kids who can drive a tractor.
Raagan Wicken, 17, also a senior from Norwich, wore pink glittery Toms shoes and a navy polka-dot skirt to school on a Friday morning, her gray sweats and boots tucked into her locker, ready for the messier aspects of her ag classes. She won't compromise her style, though - the boots are sparkly.
"Some people might come to their next class a little bit late because they had to get all of their pigs into the stall or something," she said.
Wicken is one of many students who came to the program with no agricultural background at all but an interest in pursuing one of the areas of study - animal science, horticulture, aquaculture and agricultural technology mechanics. In the first two quarters of her senior year, she's taking Devon O'Keefe's Vet Assistant II class; if she passes the test, she'll get her certification for a veterinary assistant's license.
At home, Wicken has four dogs, two hamsters, a chinchilla and fish - her animal of choice. She plans to be a veterinarian for marine animals.
"When I was 3 years old, I said, 'Mom, I want to be a vet,' and I've wanted to be one ever since," she said.
The agri-science program at Ledyard has been around for about 40 years, said department chairman Shelly Roy, who also teaches horticulture. It opened in the '60s, serving about eight towns and replacing the original program at Norwich Free Academy.
"It's been growing steadily over the years. When the program started, there was just one teacher," she said.
Today there are five full-time teachers — two in animal science and one each in aquaculture, agricultural mechanics and horticulture.
In O'Keefe's class of 15 seniors, animal footprints are sponged on the white cinderblock walls - horse hooves and webbed duck feet, bird and bear tracks. On a poster that reads "All Lab Animals Great and Small," a gorilla clutches a rat tenderly in his fist. Another asks, "Do you have the skills to pay the bills?" Next to resilience, punctuality, creativity, work ethic and time management are the more specialized talents of milking cows and driving a tractor.
On a Friday, it's macaroni animal day — students craft the anatomies of goats, horses, cows and pigs from dry pasta, using yarn for their muscles and different-colored Play-Doh for the digestive and reproductive systems.
Two doors in the back of the classroom lead to the animal lab and the doggy day care center, fully equipped with grooming brushes, shampoos and nail-clippers.
The lab is home to nine piglets and two grown pigs, a brown calf named Suzie-Q, two alpacas, two goats, chickens, a rabbit and a chinchilla. Most are on loan from students and local farms. A constant stream of smooth jazz echoes throughout the lab. Students used the music to soothe the sow when she gave birth.
O'Keefe said many of her students fall back on the vet assistant certification if they can't afford college tuition, allowing them to be paid more than minimum wage working in a vet's office. Others use the certification to work their way through school.
"A lot of the students want to work with animals as a career," she said, "and this program will certainly help them get to that point."
Unlike other agricultural programs in the state, the one at Ledyard also focuses on specializations particularly useful in southeastern Connecticut, including marine science. Roy said many students go to work at the Mystic Aquarium or Project Oceanology at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point.
"We still have students interested in traditional ag, but we focus on things like landscape design, small animal care, vet science and some aquaculture, which is of great interest to students from this area," she said.
The program's curriculum is set up like one for a college major. In the first two years, students follow a general agriculture curriculum. In their junior and senior years, they branch off into more specific study. In their final quarter, seniors complete a self-directed senior project, graded based on how well they meet the requirements they set for themselves beforehand. Taking care of Annabelle the calf will be Fuchs' senior project.
TV shows and frequent aquarium visits create lots of would-be marine biologists, Roy said. But once they see what else is out there, many change their minds.
Senior Lindsey Reinhart, 17, was one of those. She joined the program to study animals but quickly switched to floral art, taught by Roy.
"I kind of learned I'm afraid of 90 percent of the animals here," Reinhart said.
But no matter what path students choose, the theme of the agri-science program is hands-on learning, both in the classroom and outside. The program requires that all students have some extracurricular experience related to their field of choice.
"The students are going to be able to get up and practice, whether it's working in the greenhouse, creating a floral arrangement, designing and setting up a filtering system for a large tank in the aquaculture lab, checking animal health or their weight or growth, repairing an engine. ... Maybe they're building a shed," Roy said. "There's a lot of things students might be doing."
"They want to see that application, they want to work with their hands, they want to be able to handle animals or work with flowers," she said. "They want that opportunity to put into practice what they believe they want for a career."