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Hawlemont seeks $325K farm-school grant

CHARLEMONT — A few Hawlemont Regional School students, the school superintendent and School Committee chairwoman are heading to Boston today with student-written letters of support for a $325,000 grant application to create a hands-on, agriculture-based curriculum for the school.

Hawlemont officials hope that planting a farm-based education program in a traditional farming community will stimulate learning and draw more School Choice students to a school where the enrollment has been declining.

This summer, school board Chairwoman Ivy Palmer suggested adding an agricultural component to the school curriculum; then a teacher brought in information about the Walton Rural Life Center in Kansas. Walton was a public school with about 100 students enrolled, that was slated for closure in 2006. Instead of closing, it became a charter school with farming as its educational theme. It’s now the first elementary agriculture charter school, with an enrollment of 167 students and a waiting list for kindergarten enrollment through 2018. The school children do farm chores and teachers use agriculture as a basis for teaching basic concepts in math, science, economics and responsibility.

“We’ll still be teaching common-core curriculum to meet state requirements, but using agriculture as a platform,” said Palmer.

At Hawlemont, the idea of agricultural-based education has already fostered a civics lesson of sorts, as students put their heads together to write letters to Gov. Deval Patrick in support of this new education plan. Because Patrick cannot be available, the letters will be delivered to Grant Program Manager Tim Dodd.

“Please give us this grant,” wrote a student named Anna. “All the kids in the school really want this. Think about it this way, if you were in the school, wouldn’t you want to have a farm with cows and chickens, even a green house. All of the students would be so happy. You would be our hero.”

Another student, Nicholas, wrote: “Our community is involved in farming and we want to be involved as well. Farms are an important part of our culture. Without farms our lives would be so different.”

“It is a very fun program that helps kids learn about farming and animals and plants and weather and life cycles. I think it will really help kids to learn,” wrote Serafina. “What we need help with is we have to have some more money to make it work. Can you support us?”

If Hawlemont gets its Community Innovation Challenge Grant, the money will be used this year to construct an on-premises chicken coop, a 24-by-30-foot barn and a greenhouse — both with electricity and plumbing.

It would also be used to hire an educational group, Fertile Ground of Williamsburg, to coordinate the program, working with the teachers, consultants and farmers throughout the first year of construction and implementation.

Fertile Ground began in 2003 as an after-school teaching garden project, and has moved on to work with the Williamsburg Elementary School and others on Farm to School programs, which makes it possible for school cafeterias to serve the produce grown in school gardens, as well as from certified food distributors.

The grant application says Fertile Ground would pull in agricultural partners and hire a curriculum writer to work with teachers, consultants and local farmers throughout that first year.

“Agriculture was chosen because kids love it, we live in a farming community, and there is almost nothing in elementary education that can’t be explained by relating it to cows and plows,” the application says.

“It is the hope of the School Committee that, by drawing on the unique strengths of their community and trying a new, innovative approach to learning at Hawlemont, the school will not only achieve financial sustainability but will also boost student achievement on the MCAS,” says the application.

The animals to be housed on school grounds during the school year would be lent to the school by local farmers, who would be responsible for providing food and veterinary care. The school may also ask the Mary Lyon Education Foundation, a nonprofit school booster group, for a yearly maintenance grant. Also, there will be fund raising projects, such as plant and produce sales, to off-set maintenance costs and help pay an on-site school coordinator.

“We will be able to measure the success of this project by examining enrollment over the next five years, specifically (School) Choice enrollment,” says the application. “It is our intent to increase the number of students that choice into the district and decrease the number that Choice out,” says the application. “We will also explore town demographic data, analyze (assessment test results) and district assessment data over the next six years ...” The school district also plans to develop student and parent surveys.

The school board wants to construct the related farm buildings this spring and summer, so that they are ready for next fall. Also, the grant money will pay teachers for an additional 20 days of work during the summer, when they would work with an educational consultant to write study units.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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