At this Kansas school, ag leads the lessons

Click image to view slideshow
Students Wil Bartel and Daniel Eash-Scott and principal Natise Vogt rotate compost outside the Walton Rural Life Center, where all kindergarten through fourth-grade lessons are tied to food and farming. (Gene Meyer for Harvest Public Media)
Students Wil Bartel and Daniel Eash-Scott and principal Natise Vogt rotate compost outside the Walton Rural Life Center, where all kindergarten through fourth-grade lessons are tied to food and farming. (Gene Meyer for Harvest Public Media)
About the author

Gene Meyer is a former financial affairs reporter for The Kansas City Star who also has covered agriculture for that news organization,  The Wall Street Journal and the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer-Press.

WALTON, Kan. – Not many elementary school students shoot snakes in Kansas. Even fewer who do bring their prizes to show-and-tell. 

But at the Walton Rural Life Center, where all the kindergarten through fourth grade lessons are tied to food and farming, one third grader did bring a dead snake to class. He shot a kingsnake with a BB gun to protect some farm chickens. Then he brought the creature to school in plastic bag the next day because it was interesting, said Natise Vogt, the school’s principal.  

What happened next also might seem unexpected anywhere you suddenly encounter sleek, intricately colored dead reptiles nearly three feet long.

After a brief pause to let everyone exhale quickly-caught breaths, “we tried to turn it into a teachable moment,” Vogt said.

First, the kids learned everything they could about kingsnakes. Kingsnakes aren’t poisonous. They eat lizards, birds, eggs and other snakes. They live along streams and rivers in much of eastern Kansas.

The students also stretched the snake out to measure it.  Then someone noticed the bulge in the snake’s middle, about where everyone thought the abdomen would be.

“We speculated about what the bulge might be,” Vogt said. 

They opened it and found…a mouse.

“We measured that too, Vogt said.

Pigs and gardens

Lesson planning gets flexible at Walton, which is one of only two elementary schools in Kansas — and the U.S. for that matter — where lessons are focused entirely on agriculture, according to federal education department authorities. Service Valley Charter Academy in Oswego, in far southeastern Kansas, is the other school.

Few of the 148 kindergarten-through-fourth-graders who attend the Walton Rural Life Center’s low-rise single story brick school building on the west edge of this south-central Kansas farming community actually live on working farms.   

But all the Walton students take turns caring for pigs, sheep and chickens at the school. They also tend a school garden to raise snacks for school lunch.  They pick up a farm-kid view of math, science, economics and other disciplines along the way. They calculate how much feed goes into which containers to feed the animals. They learn science by watching how eggs hatch and how plants grow from seeds to snacks. And they learn economics by working out profits and losses selling eggs from the school’s chickens.

Walton doesn’t exist to turn out crops of future farmers, Vogt said. It uses farming to raise hands-on problem solvers with a firm grasp of the reading, math and other skills Kansas requires of all elementary students in the state.

That’s working so far.  Rural schools in Kansas struggle sometimes to hit the same academic performance levels as bigger, more prosperous schools in, say, well off Kansas City suburbs.

But Walton has been recognized twice in its six-year existence for scoring in the top five percent among Kansas academic achievement tests. More than half of Walton’s fourth graders are counted as exemplary readers on state tests, compared to 30 percent of all fourth graders in Kansas.

Newton Unified School District Superintendent Deborah Hamm, whose district sponsors the charter that Walton operates under, says that shouldn’t be surprising.  Farm animals aside, Walton’s lesson plans cover the same state prescribed course work as other schools, she said.

“The difference isn’t what they learn, it’s how they learn,” Hamm said. 

Kansas state education standards want second graders to be comfortable adding or subtracting numbers as large as 20. But many Walton second graders also are adept at multiplying or dividing by 12. They are the school’s egg producers.

Walton’s pint-sized problem solvers are notching up bigger successes as well. Backers of the charter school – just one of 15 in all Kansas – say their ag-centric approach to learning is preventing the otherwise inevitable closure of yet another rural school and is doing much to keep this south-central Kansas community alive longer.

Forging a new path

Walton schools were following a long familiar path to rural Americans before the Rural Life Center opened in 2006.  Since the mid 1930s, Walton public schools provided elementary, junior high and high school educations for generations of Harvey County families in rural south-central Kansas. Classes were small. Most had fewer than 20 students. And their shared passage into young adulthood was woven deeply into the community’s civic life.

Time passed. Opportunities declined. Young people moved out. Walton was absorbed by nearby Newton Unified School District 373 after sweeping statewide school consolidations began in the early 1960s.  What were nearly 3,000 Kansas school districts in 1958 became barely 300 a decade later.

Walton fought gamely to keep its school open. But budgets were tight. Time seemed to be running out by 2005, when former Newton schools superintendent John Morton approached Vogt, then Walton public schools new elementary principal, about converting to an agricultural themed charter school.

“We became a charter school to keep the building open,” Vogt said.

No one in the beginning seemed sure how well the new path might work.  Even Vogt admits to some skepticism at first.

“I’m a city girl,” she said.

But the school opened. The students flourished. Farm families pitched in by, among other things, hosting field trips to offer students hands-on experience learning how math, reading and other lessons worked on big time farms.

And dwindling enrollment? It’s not so much a problem any more. Rural Life Center’s charter allows it to accept students from outside the district and some families are even asking about reserving future slots for children who aren’t yet born, Vogt said.

The turnaround also is changing community development prospects for the community of Walton, said John Esau, president of the Walton State Bank and an early advocate for forming the charter school to keep a school open in the community of 235 people in 93 households.

“It makes a big difference,” Esau said. “Schools are one the first things young people look at when they consider relocating.”