In the semirural country outside Marysville, an 18-acre tract has all the signs of a working farm. A fence runs the length of a horse arena...

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In the semirural country outside Marysville, an 18-acre tract has all the signs of a working farm. A fence runs the length of a horse arena. There are stables and a barn, a grain silo and most of the requisite farm animals, including horses, sheep and nearly a dozen little pigs and their 500-pound mama.

But at this farm, the hands arrive and depart by school bus.

The operation is run by a teacher, Andrew Delegans, whom colleagues and former students describe as a tireless mentor with a “heart for kids.”

Delegans, who has spent 33 years as a shop and animal-science teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, was honored last week with one of the state’s highest teaching awards, the KCTS Golden Apple Award, given annually to 10 Washington educators and programs.

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“He exemplifies what good teaching is all about,” said Jim Ballew, Marysville’s parks director, who worked with Delegans to develop the city Rotary Ranch Petting Zoo, which attracts 600 to 700 people a day each summer.

“He drops off the animals; he tells us who to hire for the crew. If it weren’t for Andy’s passion for teaching kids, we wouldn’t be here,” Ballew said.

Twenty-five years ago, students in an FFA club at the high school asked Delegans if they could raise animals. The school district let the club use its vacant 18-acre property east of Interstate 5 on 116th Street Northeast.

Over the years, said Marysville-Pilchuck vice principal Dave Rose, Delegans “begged, borrowed or stole” surplus sinks, storage cupboards, building materials and farm machines.

Working with students and a colleague, Bill Goetz, Delegans built the farm and its adjoining classroom from the ground up.

On a day of intermittent sun last week, about 30 students swabbed out stalls and shoveled fresh alder chips around skittish sheep and squealing pigs. They fit the farm’s four horses with bridles and led them in circles around the arena.

When one horse reared, a startled boy shouted: “Mr. D! She lunged at me!”

Delegans shouted back suggestions from the far side of the arena, his voice never losing its characteristic calm.

“Did you exercise her? She probably needs to run. She’s been cooped up in that stall.”

Delegans grew up on a farm along the Snake River in Eastern Washington. He remembers his parents teaching him how to operate dangerous farm equipment when he was a boy. They watched him, he said, until they were sure he had learned the needed skills, and then they left him to use the skills responsibly.

That’s roughly a model for his relationship with his students today.

“He has such high expectations for the kids, and he knows his subject so well. They listen to him when he talks,” said Gayle Goudsward, a Marysville-Pilchuck teaching aide who has worked with Delegans for 13 years.

Holly Thompson, a former student who majored in animal science at Washington State University and now works for Nestlé, said Delegans was always more than a teacher.

“He was a mentor, an adviser, a friend. He made you grow and expand beyond what you thought you could do,” Thompson said.

The animal-science program at Marysville-Pilchuck is one of the few high-school programs in Western Washington with a working farm. In 1998, the Marysville School Board questioned its value to a community growing ever more suburban.

“They said, ‘There are no farms around here. Why do we have this program?’ ” Delegans recalled.

When word got out, former students and their parents phoned and wrote letters of support.

Ed Triezenberg, whose daughter Jessica spent three years in the program, said it provided a rare educational opportunity and helped students gain “critical life skills.”

Uncertainty still hangs over the program’s future. It enrolls just 150 students a year in a school of 2,540 students. The farm is on a site reserved for a future elementary school.

Delegans could have retired three years ago. But he insists that the value of the program is in the hands-on approach to learning, the way the farm gives kids an understanding of how science, math and reading might be put to use and lay the foundation for a career.

“It’s not just me that makes it a valuable program,” he said. “It’s what the program gives the kids.”

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807