It’s been a long time since Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church was the westernmost outpost of the city of Little Rock, but lately neighbors and congregants alike have heard the sound of the country emanating from the church grounds.
“Are those chickens?” one woman was overheard on a recent stroll to her car from the sanctuary. Her companion, a Holy Souls School eighth-grader, nodded.
“Those belong to the fourth-graders,” the girl said nonchalantly.
Just a few yards from the church’s massive front doors, on one side of Soul Food, the parish community garden space, five of the yard birds roost, cluck and scratch in their custom-made coop. The brood is the brainchild of Amber Bagby, who launched the idea last year with her fourth-grade class.
Bagby, mother of three and a native of Conway, was first exposed to urban chicken-tending after the family relocated to Indiana with her husband’s job.
The Bagbys took up raising the birds, which gave Amber a front-row seat at how docile the creatures were.
“We just had so much fun raising a flock of six,” she said. “Through that, we saw all the things it teaches kids. Chickens are known for making the world go ‘round just from all the things you gain from them.”
“One day I was telling my (students) about our chickens and one of the kids said, ‘We should get a coop here.’”
Keeping a few hens in the backyard was one thing, but introducing the barnyard fowl as a school project quite another.
“I started researching this and thinking, how was I going to pitch this to Father (John) Marconi. He’s going to think I’m crazy,” she said. “He was pretty sold. He grew up on a farm, so I think he had that connection. And he knew he would be getting fresh eggs. He said, ‘let’s do it.’”
Bagby’s students were involved with every aspect of the project, starting with raising money to get things off the ground, which they did with the assistance of peers. Bagby’s husband Marc and other Holy Souls dads built the coop according to specifications drawn up by the class.
The kids also researched and voted on which birds to order from 50 breeds available.
“We ordered them online, we got chicks in a box,” she said. “They brought this box to our classroom and you could hear this little ‘Cheep, cheep, cheep.’ It was really cool.”
Thus began a period where the baby chickens grew until ready to be introduced to the coop. Most days the birds — named Pinocchio (which later died due to a birth defect), Clean Twitch, Janet Jackson, Red Runner, Pumpkin and Chick Norris — were allowed to free range about the newspaper-carpeted classroom. An odd sight to be sure, but an arrangement that allowed both students and fowl to acclimate to one another.
“It is pretty difficult to hold any chicken, especially if it’s not used to being around people,” said fifth-grader Kate Glasgow. “The chicken is the one who really has to get used to it. It’s not the person. It’s easier than holding a baby; you just have to keep the wings under and keep its bottom away from you or it might poop on you.”
When the time finally came to usher the brood to its new home, the Holy Souls fourth-graders did it in style, with a parade and red carpet.
As expected, the birds have taught many lessons, from the arithmetic it takes to determine square footage to the more existential matter of students connecting the dots between their class pets and where chicken nuggets come from. Eggs are shared with the rectory or with visitors to the community garden.
Sarah Siria, now a fifth-grader, said, “I was like, wait, are we really doing this or are you just pulling my leg? It brought the whole class together. Before (the project), everyone was forming their groups, but from now on, we’re all together because of that project.”
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