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Hawlemont plants seeds for farm program

New curriculum would aim to boost enrollment

CHARLEMONT — Hawley and Charlemont have always been farming towns, and the Hawlemont Regional School Committee is looking to connect its students to those farming “roots,” by developing a school-based farm program.

The school, nestled in a field that was once a cow pasture, has educated plenty of farmers’ children in its time — but not about farming.

Chairman Ivy Palmer, a small-scale farmer and the founder of the Shelburne Falls Farmers Market, has raised the idea — as a way to give children an inspiring, “hands-on” educational experience and also to possibly boost school enrollment.

The inspiration is the Walton Rural Life Center in Kansas, which uses agriculture as a teaching tool for elementary schoolchildren.

In 2006, when the Walton School, a public school, had a student population of about 100 children, it was slated for closure by the school district. But, instead of closing, it became a charter school, with an educational theme. It’s now the nation’s first elementary agriculture charter school, with an enrollment of 167 students and a waiting list for kindergarten enrollees through 2018.

The children do farm chores, and agriculture is used to teach students about math, science, economics and responsibility.

Also, said Palmer, the Walton students’ achievement test scores are within the top 5 percent statewide.

Palmer says the success of Walton’s program “reinforces that it’s a potential good avenue for us to take. I would like to reach out to that school and town,” Palmer told fellow School Committee members.

Between now and the next school board meeting, Palmer said she would try to call Walton school committee members, and Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said he would contact the school’s superintendent, and go over the logistics and any regulations to address before offering farm programs for elementary students.

“Hawlemont’s been struggling for the last few years, financially,” said Buoniconti. “Rowe’s moving in (after the Rowe school building fire) has bought Hawlemont some time, but radical changes are needed if the school is to be sustained. Financially, it’s just not working.”

School Committee member Eric Dean recalled how, when he was growing up in the 1970s, “it was nothing to see 20, 30 little dairy farms in this area. The skills you learn as a child on a farm go with you all through the rest of your life. You take those with you,” he said.

Hawlemont board member Courtney Hoyt of Hawley suggested contacting local farmers, to see if they would be willing to work with children from grades 5 and 6.

“I think its awesome we’re even considering this,” she said.

Palmer said she’s been trying to come up with ideas on how to make Hawlemont a “destination school.”

“As we become more aware of our food, where it’s coming from, and how much it’s handled or processed, I think people are realizing there’s real value in locally produced agriculture. “I think it’s a great way to get kids excited about coming to school.”

A few years ago, Hawlemont teacher Kimberly Orzechowski started a school garden. “The children love it,” she said. “They can all come in the summer and pick the produce from it”

The School Committee is to do more research on how to set up such a program. For instance, a greenhouse might be useful for planting produce during the school year.

“I’m very excited about all the positive feedback I’ve gotten on this from the faculty and school parents,” Palmer said.

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

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