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Rural life fuels Kansas school’s revival

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, at 8:53 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, at 10:03 p.m.

Walton Rural Life Center

The Walton Rural Life Center, a charter school east of Newton, is raising money to add space. For more information or to make a donation through the Central Kansas Community Foundation, contact Principal Natise Vogt at 620-837-3161, ext. 2114, or visit the school’s website, http://w-usd373-ks.schoolloop.com.

— Every so often Deb Flavin, the school secretary at Walton Rural Life Center, will get a phone call from a pregnant woman or her husband.

The baby’s not here yet, they’ll say, but can we go ahead and get on the waiting list for kindergarten?

“I just started (the waiting list for) 2018,” Flavin said recently. “My granddaughter was the first one on the 2017 waiting list, and she wasn’t born yet.”

Such is the demand for coveted spots at this little school in Walton, a farming community about five miles east of Newton in Harvey County.

Six years ago, that wasn’t the case. Enrollment was barely 80 students, and every year at budget time the school was threatened for closure.

In 2007, it re-established itself as a charter school focused on agriculture and project-based learning, one of only 17 charter schools in Kansas.

Since then its enrollment has more than doubled, and the Walton Rural Life Center – “Fresh eggs for sale,” says a sign near the entrance – has become an example of charter school success.

“Walton is really going above and beyond,” said Jessica Noble, who coordinates charter schools for the Kansas Department of Education.

“Many other schools are doing great things as well. But the model Walton Rural Life Center is using is very unique and forward-thinking.”

The model focuses on agriculture as the basis for learning. And it’s clear from the moment the first bell rings, as children and teachers don boots and gloves for morning chores.

“Jett! Leah! Do you have corn for the sheep?”

Johannah Hein guides her homeroom class through their morning to-do list, which includes collecting eggs, feeding cows, goats, sheep and pigs, straightening the barn and making sure water-bowl heaters are working.

“We don’t have a lot of time, just 20 minutes,” she said one recent morning, as first-graders Elijah Metzler and Leah Sauerwein headed for the chicken coop.

“Head on in there. If the hens get in front of you, just keep walking and say, ‘Out of my way, ladies!’ ”

The children found just one egg that morning – hens’ production goes way down in November and December, they’ve learned – but they dutifully delivered the egg to Staci Schill’s second-grade class for cleaning and processing.

“We’re not trying to make a whole school of farmers,” said Walton principal Natise Vogt. “But project-based learning makes a big difference for kids. … They learn the hows and the whys behind what they’re learning.”

Schill’s second-graders, for instance, learn how to clean, weigh, package and market eggs, which the school sells for $2 a dozen. They learn how to mix egg-wash powder into cold water, how to gently scrub each egg and then coat it with mineral oil.

They fill orders and decide what to do with the proceeds. A list of possibilities on the classroom white board includes buying new hens, feed, hay or P.E. equipment, taking a field trip and giving money to the Walton food bank.

And the students quickly memorize multiples of 12.

“If you have three egg cartons, that’s 36 eggs,” Sam Schmidt explains. “Four cartons, that’s 48.”

Kindergartners in Rhonda Roux’s class make lip balm out of beeswax and soybean oil, adding a few drops of sweet-smelling tangerine fragrance, and sell them for $2 each.

In the meantime, they learn how to measure and combine ingredients, how heat can change solids to liquid and how savings add up.

“When we first started, we just wanted to make enough to have a pizza party,” Roux said. “But we’ve sold over 200. Now I think we’re going to buy an iPad.”

Similarly, six years ago, Walton’s goal for its charter school was modest: It just wanted to survive.

Now it’s not only surviving but thriving, hosting visitors from all over the world who want to see the school in action and perhaps replicate its success.

Last month a team from New Zealand visited Walton, which is believed to be the first school in the nation to completely incorporate agriculture into its classrooms.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education produced a video about Walton’s turnaround, which can be viewed on YouTube and has attracted visitors from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minnesota and elsewhere.

Now Walton, which operates under the auspices of the Newton school district, is one of the region’s most popular programs and soon may have to turn students away.

The school is trying to raise $300,000 to build two new classrooms, including a new kindergarten. If it can’t, nearly 20 kindergartners on the list for next school year will not be able to attend, said Vogt, the principal.

“That saddens me, but we just don’t have the room,” she said. “Success and popularity are wonderful, but eventually you run out of space, and that’s where we are.”

Walton was still struggling the last time Newton voters passed a school bond issue, more than five years ago, so it was left off the list of construction projects.

Recently, though, architects drew up plans for a grand, $3 million expansion of the Rural Life Center, which would turn the modest elementary into a K-8 building with an attached preschool. Vogt keeps the drawings in her office in hopes the funds, like the families on her waiting list, eventually will materialize.

“We could fill it. I feel confident about that,” she said. “It’s fun to think of the possibilities.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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