No kidding — goat is teaching Heme high school students

BY CRAIG SHULTZ

   STAFF WRITER cshultz@pe.com 
   Students in Tony Dixon’s special education class at Hemet High School have a unique classmate — a 9-month-old goat named Cleopatra.

   The eight students, all of whom have autism, feed, walk and tend to Cleopatra each school day. In turn, she teaches them about responsibility, Dixon said.

   “These kids are always taken care of,” Dixon said. “This gives them an opportunity to give the care.”

   Animals frequently are used for therapy in senior homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and hospitals. But it’s not common for those in therapy to take care of the critters.

   “We’re breaking new ground here,” Dixon said.

   Agriculture teacher Rafael Mosqueda said special needs students often participate in programs 
like his, but he’s not aware of an entire class taking on responsibility for an animal.

   The idea to have the teens with autism care for Cleopatra was suggested by Jackie Gaskin, an intensive behavior intervention assistant in Dixon’s class.

   Her son is involved with the 
school’s agriculture department and has raised a pig and a goat.

   “I thought, why can’t our kids have a goat?” Gaskin said.

   Dixon was all for it.

   “It was an opportunity to enrich curriculum and I jumped on it,” he said.

   Dixon has seen growth in his students since they started caring for Cleopatra in September. Brandon Coomes, who was afraid to even go near Cleopatra in the beginning, now pets his fourlegged classmate.

   “I don’t know if there is empirical research, but we know (therapy animals) help,” Dixon said. “In terms of real therapy, it does show. It’s really enriched our curriculum.”

   Gaskin hopes the students can show Cleopatra at next’s 
year’s Southern California Fair.

   “They’ve grown a lot,” she said. “They love this goat.”

   At 1 p.m. each school day, members of the all-male class visit the school farm to take Cleopatra for a walk. Many take turns holding her leash as they circle the school’s track before feeding her and cleaning her stall.

   Cleopatra’s feed and other necessities are bought with money earned by students collecting recyclables and through donations. Some parents have bought bags of feed, Dixon said.

   Gaskin and her son care for Cleopatra on weekends 
and other days when school is out.

   Mosqueda said community service is a big part of the agriculture program, and working with Dixon’s class is a way for his students to help others.

   “They enjoy working with the special education department,” Mosqueda said. “It’s something new, different and exciting. They see (about) teaching someone else, they see development. They see what teachers see in them.”

   Follow Craig Shultz on Twitter @PE_CraigShultz and online at blog. pe.com/author/cshultz 
CRAIG SHULTZ/STAFF

   Educators and students surround Cleopatra at Hemet High School. Pictured, from left, are Nancy Murray, Aaron Heng, Jamie Southern, Tony Dixon, Brandon Coomes and Lorena Brown.

CRAIG SHULTZ/STAFF

   Members of Tony Dixon's special education class walk Cleopatra around the track at Hemet High School, led by class assistant Heather Bernard and student Jacob Gomez.

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