Agriculture focus helps rural Kansas school

WALTON — On a recent frosty morning, Carol Budde had her fifth-graders attempting to dig post holes through snow and ice on school grounds.

It was just another hands-on science and math exercise at the Walton Rural Life Center.

The students were learning about how the weather affects Earth's composition. At the same time, they were applying what they had learned about figuring area and perimeter as they laid out a pen for the pigs they are raising.

"This is the fun part," fifth-grader Haley Southern said.

And fun in learning translates into better understanding of the information and a hunger to learn more. That's how it's working out for Walton since it began using agriculture in 2007 as the basis for its curriculum.

"We pull everything into agriculture," Budde said.

And she does mean everything, and for all grades, kindergarten through fifth. From math and science to reading and art, the school presents all subjects to students while incorporating an assortment of animals, chickens, a garden, a greenhouse and agriculture-related projects as learning tools.

After the first-graders went outside to draw pictures of one of the school's goats, Petey, they returned to their classroom to write stories about their pictures.

"They enjoyed it so much that they all wrote at second- and third-grade levels," Walton principal Natise Vogt said. "That's what happens when kids get excited about learning."

Walton, which is in the Newton school district, is believed to be the first school in the nation to completely incorporate agriculture into its classrooms.

A couple of years ago, an elementary school in Oswego in southeastern Kansas became the second.

Shrinking enrollment spurred both schools to break new ground. Both were re-established as charter schools, which allowed them to obtain about $150,000 in federal grants spread over three years to get things started.

Newton school superintendent John Morton said using agriculture at Walton made particularly good sense for a number of reasons: Agriculture dominates Harvey County; Newton High School already had an established vocational-ag program; and the change at Walton would allow it to pull in students from a wider area.

"It's actually the closest school for a lot of rural families, even though we're not their home school district," Morton said. "We were looking for something that our families could identify with and give our kids a great experience.

"The project-based experience with an agriculture focus seemed like a match made in heaven."

Apparently so.

When Vogt took over as principal at Walton four years ago, the school was down to 86 students. Now in its third year of having ag fully implemented in its classrooms, Walton is at capacity with 135 students. Vogt said she had to turn away eight families this year.

Besides the town of Walton, the school has students from Newton, Hillsboro, Sedgwick, Peabody and Whitewater.

Oswego's experience

Oswego officials visited Walton after one of its elementary schools just southeast of Parsons fell to 42 students a few years ago. They liked what they saw.

The district's Service Valley Charter Academy, which has grades kindergarten through eighth, is now in its second year of using ag in the classroom and maintains an enrollment of 60 to 70 students, principal Mikel Ward said.

The school spreads its ag wings on a 10-acre campus, utilizing seven gardens, four steers, a miniature horse, chickens, rabbits, sheep and goats. Students also use a 60-foot wind turbine for science projects.

"We're not trying to make kids farmers," Ward said. "We're just using it as a tool to motivate to teach kids.

"Kids can't always relate numbers to something until they can tie it to something. You can see their little brains turning. Maybe it has something to do with chickens or something they grew in the garden."

Teaching work ethic is also part of the ag connection.

"Our kids are required to do chores every day," Ward said.

An unexpected spin-off for Oswego is that parent involvement at the school has skyrocketed.

"We used to have to beg parents to come to school," Ward said. "Now when we have a program, everyone shows up."

Student achievement

Students are also responding.

At Walton, Vogt said tardies and absences have decreased 50 percent and discipline problems have dropped.

Last year, the school achieved the excellence standard on state testing for both math and reading. Walton also received the governor's achievement award, which means it finished in the top 5 percent of testing for all schools in Kansas, Vogt said.

Teachers credit students taking ownership of their work as a key reason for the results.

"Many times they'll give up recess to pull weeds in the garden," Walton second-grade teacher Staci Schill said.

Of course, there are motivating factors that can only catch a child's attention.

Second-grader Chris Dugan said working in the garden and learning about plants were his favorite parts "because we get to, like, get dirty."

Getting teachers ready

Before agriculture could be used as a teaching tool, teachers had to buy into the idea.

Both schools came into the programs with limited ag experience on staff.

Budde grew up on a farm. But this is her first year at Walton, so she wasn't around for the start-up.

And Vogt said, "I'm a city girl from Nebraska, so I resisted for a while. But it made sense."

The process at Oswego's Service Valley was eased somewhat by the fact that its math teacher for the upper grades, Ray Huff, is a fourth-generation farmer. He oversees the ag application in the curriculum.

"That helps," Ward said. "But it was scary two years ago. The staff was apprehensive."

To help get up to speed at Walton during the summer of 2007, teachers went on a field trip to a Minnesota school that offered one agriculture class. They also spent a week at Kansas State University learning about all things agriculture and how to apply it to the classroom.

For ongoing help, the school uses master gardener, Jacque Spangler and Harvey County extension agent Jonie James. In addition, each Walton classroom is adopted by a farm family, which offers its farm for field trips and provides advice.

"When we started this, everyone was worried about how we were going to integrate agriculture into the curriculum," Vogt said. "Once we got started, it was natural. Now it's just second nature to them."

For example, a study of American Indians by Walton's third-graders led them to plant pieces of dead goldfish in pots to enrich the soil for bean plants.

"We try to make learning fun and meaningful for the students," third-grade teacher Kathy Murphy said.

Murphy was the school's fifth-grade teacher last year when her class pulled off a salsa project.

But it went far beyond just raising the ingredients — garlic, tomatoes and peppers — and selling them.

In between, the students used math to map out a garden, kept production records, balanced a checkbook, developed a business plan, and learned how to combat an infestation of white flies and aphids that attacked their plants without using chemicals.

They also made a PowerPoint presentation of their project to convince their principal to let them tap into the charter funds for start-up money.

"They were doing everything with a purpose," Murphy said. "They were reading for a reason, researching ways to treat the plants.

"When there's a reason for learning, it really matters to them. They take ownership."

The fifth-graders also made some money. All of their projects, including the salsa, raised about $800 for the school.

That's significant because Walton's charter funding ended last year.

"Now we're on our own," Vogt said.

The school district pays for only normal expenses, such as teacher salaries. All of the agriculture-related expenses are paid by donations and any money raised by school projects.

If a charter school can sustain itself for five years without the funding, it can reapply for more funding.

That's a long stretch. The possibility of closing Walton still looms.

"But we're more viable than we were four years ago," Vogt said.

Service Valley is in its final year of charter funding.

"This has been a godsend to our little country school," Ward said. "We hope we can keep it going."

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