Agriculture-based schools provide students with farm know-how that complements their more general academic education.
Going to school may feel like a chore for some children, but not for the students of the Walton Rural Life Center in Walton, Kansas. Each morning they come bouncing off the bus, don rubber boots and work gloves, and head to the barnyard behind the school’s building.
Students work in teams as they feed, water, and clean up after chickens, calves, pigs, goats, and sheep, all the while utilizing their math, science, and reading skills in the process. Rotating weekly, one grade performs barnyard tasks each morning. The children may not realize it, but this program has helped to keep the school open.
Nine years ago, the school had less than 90 students and was facing closure. Since becoming an agricultural-themed charter school in 2007 — one of the first in the nation — enrollment has more than doubled with two classes of each grade, kindergarten through 4th grade.
Wyatt Monaghen, 10, who attended the school for five years, says his favorite chore was collecting eggs. He says some kids are afraid to reach under the hen to retrieve eggs. “I just went up and did it,” he says, adding that his family has chickens at home. His sister, Gillian, 7, also enjoys gathering eggs and cleaning the cow pen.
Their father, Sean, a high school teacher, says, “Even after school was out for the summer, both kids were excited to attend a morning ag camp there for two weeks.”
Agriculture doesn’t just stay in the barnyard. It’s presented in every classroom and activity. In science class, first-grade students watch a video called “The Needs of Animals” and sing along as they learn that every animal needs water, food, and shelter.
Principal Jason Chalashtari says, “We have sheep ewes that had baby lambs, and through that process fourth-graders learned about what it takes for a young animal to survive the cold, be fed and watered, and have clean bedding.”
Local farm families adopt classrooms, too. Carrie Budde provides eggs for the kindergarten classes in the spring, and students incubate and watch them hatch in the classroom. She keeps the chickens over the summer and returns them in the fall to lay eggs.
Students also plant and harvest a variety of vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, corn, lettuce, and radishes that are served for lunch and snacks. They go on farm tours, read rural-themed books, design and sew quilts, and pull, clean, and card wool from the sheep they care for.
Chalashtari says, “When you go outside and get your hands dirty and talk about what you studied in class, it becomes applicable to real life. The connection between what they’re taught in the classroom and the real world application is the most important thing we teach here. I’m excited about the future and what we can accomplish here.” And so are the students.
The Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts, has similar goals in mind. The Chicken Coop is a full-time home school cooperative for local middle school students. Instructors Wendy Davenport and Molly St. Clair teach the group of 14 seventh- and eighth-graders at the one-room Chicken Coop, which is a renovated chicken coop and a working organic farm. Several local farmers teach courses in farm life, music, and art, but Davenport and St. Clair teach the regular course work, including math, social studies, and physical education.
Davenport has taught English and writing at the Farm School since it opened in 2002. Aside from basic subjects, students spend two days a week learning about different aspects of farm life from local farmers. She says, “They do farm work, such as stacking wood, harvesting and washing vegetables, weeding, and making jam, depending on the season.” They also bring in firewood and clean the classroom on school days.
In addition, about 2,000 students from other area schools come for three-day visits throughout the school year to perform hands-on tasks and help out on the farm. St. Clair was first exposed to the farm as a visiting fifth-grader. She returned each summer for a weeklong summer camp where students milked cows, cared for animals, sawed timber, built fence, cooked, gardened, and harvested hay. “I’ve always been into nature, outdoors, and the environment,” she says.
She says what kept her coming back were, “the friendly adults who treat children the same as anyone else and believe that they can do the work of the farm just as hard.” She later worked at the summer camp during college. After college, she spent a year teaching visiting students before becoming a teacher at the Chicken Coop in 2014, where she teaches social studies, math, science, and the weekly essay.
She loves all aspects of the Chicken Coop. “We have a more flexible schedule, kids can be out on the farm, and it’s a unique thing for them to feed the animals, see the plants develop, and follow that whole process along.”
Extending ag education into secondary school, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) opened in 1985 to prepare urban students for professions and careers in agriculture. Any high school student in the city may apply, and selection is by lottery. More than 700 students — half boys, half girls — attend grades nine through 12.
Sheila Fowler, the Agriculture Department Chair and FFA advisor, says, “We not only train students in production agriculture, but in all the careers that are out there after products leave the farm.”
Juniors and seniors choose from six pathways: agricultural mechanics and technology; agriculture finance and economics; horticulture food science and technology; animal science; agriculture education; and biotechnology in agriculture. “The last pathway is to train agriculture teachers, because nationwide there is a shortage,” Fowler says. After graduation, about 35 percent major in agriculture in college.
Opportunities for students to get their hands dirty include two greenhouses, livestock, and 50 acres of pasture where sweet corn, pumpkins, vegetables, fruit trees, oats, and hay are grown. Maggie Neeson, 15, says that aside from basic classes for her freshman year, she also took Ag History and Ag Career Leadership. “In Ag History, we focused on world history, making the connection to agriculture and how it played a role in whether there was a positive outcome, why that occurred, and how that affects today’s society.” In her Ag Career class, she worked on public speaking, problem-solving, and event planning.
Although as a freshman she didn’t spend hands-on time with animals or plants, this past summer she enrolled in the Supervised Agriculture Experience, where students build fences, pick corn, feed animals, and clean the barn. “Attending that high school opened my eyes to how important ag is,” she says. She plans to become an architect, perhaps specializing in landscape architecture.
Emmanuel Mitchell, 18, who graduated last spring, attended CHSAS all four years following the horticulture pathway. He explains why he wanted to attend there. “I would be getting an education and having experiences I couldn’t get anywhere else.” He says the hands-on experience in the greenhouses was invaluable, such as learning about standard temperatures that plants require and exposure to sunlight. Although he plans to pursue computer science in college, he says he definitely will continue horticulture as a hobby.
Principal William E. Hook sums up the goal of CHSAS, “Our school provides both academic and real world training for our students,” — and it seems other ag-focused schools would agree.
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Diana West is a freelance writer from Joplin, Missouri, who writes features, travel articles, and historical pieces.
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