The door to a hen house bursts open on a chilly winter day and several Kansas charter school students scramble inside, squealing “Thank you!” to the chickens as they check for eggs and replenish their grain.
It’s a morning ritual at Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center, an elementary charter school in Newton, Kan., with a distinctive farm curriculum. Students learn through projects that range from selling eggs to showing pigs at the county fair. The agricultural focus has been replicated in other Kansas schools and even proven successful in more urban environments, including Chicago and Philadelphia.
The experiment started in 2007, when Walton Elementary faced dropping enrollment and the prospect of closing its doors entirely. Inspired to forge ahead rather than give up, Newton Public School District leaders converted the struggling elementary into a charter school. Since making the switch and embracing the agriculture emphasis, enrollment has more than doubled and test scores have increased by 8 percentage points.
“Kids love it,” said Walton Principal Natise Vogt, adding that the students fight over cleaning up the animals’ droppings. “That’s one of the things that’s important to us. We want kids to enjoy school. We want them to be happy and want to come to school, and that’s what the hands-on learning does.”
Cody Eye, 10, of Newton, said students learn math by measuring food and make money for the school by selling the animals. “It teaches us responsibility,” he said. “It teaches us how to take care of animals.”
The farming theme also has a long track record of success at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, where students care for piglets, chickens, and horses and grow plants. “The nice thing is that even the kids who never revisit the idea of agriculture; they still benefit from their ag education, the ideals of get up early, work hard, and stay late," Principal William Hook said.
In Philadelphia, the W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences’ 130-acre campus features an area for field crops and livestock pastures. Students at the magnet school have designed an exhibit for a flower show and participate in meat and dairy cattle judging clubs.
The Walton school, has also seen an increase in test results. For the past four years, all of its third- and fourth-graders have measured proficient or higher in math. Vogt credited that to the “excellent problem-solving skills” students learn.
Vogt said agriculture-themed schools owe much of their success to hands-on projects. Some fall flat, like the time the boys tried to make their own incubator to hatch duck eggs. The eggs went bad, but through the experiment, the students learned that the incubator they created wasn’t keeping the temperature consistent.
Other projects are successful, such as the solar-powered heater students designed to keep the barn warm for the newborn lambs.
Clayton Smith, 10, said he likes that students don’t just sit around. “We don’t want to do papers all day,” said Smith, who lives on a farm in Walton. “We can just learn from our teachers and being outside.”