It’s a gray school day in May, the kind of day where the clouds never quite leave the peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. A handful of peeper frogs tentatively call out in the afternoon. On a day when many science students are sleepily trying to memorize the periodic table, science teacher Kathleen Flaccus has her class outside digging in the dirt on the grounds of The Community School in South Tamworth. The class is staking out small garden plots to test different forms of fertilizer and tilling methods.
“Should we dig to the clay?” a student asks.
“That’s not clay. See how it crumbles?” Flaccus responds as she picks up some dirt, crumbles it, and then places it in the student’s outstretched hand. The group continues to dig and rake until many of the students go to woodworking class to use hand tools as they carve wood rafters from local lumber.
It’s a typical day at The Community School, a small private school for students grades 6 through 12 that endeavors to combine traditional academics with learning homesteading skills hands-on style. The school sits on an old 4-acre farm where students and staff grow enough food in greenhouses and fields to support a community supported agriculture program of some 70 members.
Since opening 20 years ago, The Community School has hosted between 20 and 50 students a year. Many of the students are either former homeschoolers who yearn for more peer interaction or public school students who yearn for a different learning experience. Some come from farming families, but others have never even seen an onion plant in the ground.
“The fun is to watch students who wouldn’t want to get their hands dirty in the beginning of the year volunteer for garden work by the end of the year,” says Jenny Rowe, the school’s former director, before Will Robinson took the helm in 2012. Rowe knows most of the children will not go on to farming careers, but that’s beside the point — the goal is to instill a love of learning and doing through farming.
“It’s about the process that you use; it’s about the excitement that you end up with,” Rowe says.
That excitement is embodied by student Fenton Varney, a young man who seems to be in on everything on campus. In the morning, he quietly leads a school tour. In the afternoon, he can’t be found without a tool in his hand, be it a shovel, a chisel or a saw. Varney says the school’s learning style fits his own.
“Public school, I’m not really a fan of that,” Varney shrugs. “It’s really cool here. You get to be hands-on instead of sitting in a desk all day.”
While The Community School offers traditional academics as well, classes tend to revolve around the farm work, and teachers construct new lessons depending on what’s happening and what’s needed on the farm. A recent history class examined what can be gleaned about local history by looking at the species and growth patterns of trees in the surrounding woodlots.
Science curriculum often revolves around soil health, as the farm’s topsoil was sold off in the 1970s and is slowly being rebuilt. Well-aged manure and compost are layered in raised beds, and crops are then planted directly in the organic material. Using this method, the farm has successfully raised a wide variety of crops, including pumpkins, squash, kale and mesclun.
The Community School farm also serves as a vital market stand and meeting place for the farms that surround it. It hosts community events, including weekly community lunches that feature locally grown ingredients from the school and surrounding farms.
On this particular day, harvest teacher Kim Seamans-Grace is preparing pumpkin waffles, hash brown-egg muffins and apple cake for some 40 community members. A new student shyly asks if she can help. She is quickly put to work making muffins, and the two have a quick impromptu math lesson on how to triple the muffin recipe. Seamans-Grace teaches children how to can, freeze and store the food in the fall. She loves the community lunches because they mix the students with older generations.
“If you put young and old together over a plate of food, the conversation goes easier,” Seamans-Grace says.
The delicious smells from the kitchen tantalize the learners throughout the morning. At noon, the kitchen fills with community members and students. Neighbors reconnect with each other, and farmers talk shop. Neighboring farmer Tucker Letarte says The Community School has become an important hub in farming life, and the relationship between the school and the neighborhood farmers is mutually beneficial.
“We lean on them certain times, and they lean on us,” he says.
The school also gives back with the young men and women who graduate and stay in the community.
“I see them around town sometimes, and it’s great to see what they’re up to,” says longtime school volunteer Candace Maher. “There are many kids who couldn’t do what they do without having gone to this school.”
Craig Idlebrook is editor for Insulin Nation and Type 2 Nation, a pair of diabetes publications in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including Mother Earth News, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Christian Science Monitor, and Funny Times.