Let me start by the saying this is one of the most innovative rural schools I’ve seen yet. And the story behind its success makes it that much more compelling.
Less than five years ago, enrollment at the Walton Rural Life Center in rural Walton, Kan., had dwindled to 86 students, putting the school in danger of closing.
In an effort to revive the kindergarten-through-5th-grade school, officials decided to convert it to a charter and overhaul its curriculum to integrate agriculture into all classes. It’s believed to be the first school in the country to do so, and a second Kansas school since has followed suit.
School leaders wanted to emphasize agriculture because it’s the predominant industry in the surrounding county and the high school already had an agriculture-based vocational program. And by becoming a charter, the school could expand its attendance zone and apply for a three-year, $150,000 federal grant to kick-start its new program, according to an article in The Wichita Eagle.
The school uses agriculture-based, hands-on learning to teach students every subject. Students grow vegetables in a greenhouse and sell them, and they feed and care for farm animals such as chickens and goats. Nearby farm families adopt classes and provide them with information and field trip locations.
The aforementioned Witchita Eagle article had a great example of how the school uses agriculture to teach lessons:
[Teacher Kathy] Murphy was the school's 5th-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 changes at Walton Rural Life Center have resulted in increased enrollment and higher test scores. The school just wrapped up its third year of operation as a redesigned school, and it’s reached capacity with 135 students and had to turn away some families. Its students are scoring above the state average, and it ranks in the top 5 percent of all Kansas schools for its academic achievement.
The school has been so successful that the U.S. Department of Education visited this fall to document what makes it work to share with other districts nationwide. That nearly 8-minute video is posted on the school’s Web site.
It’s surprising to me that there aren’t more rural schools across the country already doing this; using agriculture to teach academics in a rural settings seems like it makes sense.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.