Reading, Writing & Farming

Featured Article, On the Road, Traditions
on August 27, 2013
Jeff Tuttle

Morning farm chores, like gathering eggs and feeding sheep, are part of the classwork at Walton Rural Life Center in Walton, Kansas, the nation’s first elementary agriculture charter school, where kindergarteners through fourth-graders learn math, reading, science and responsibility as they gather and sell eggs, grow vegetables and tend farm animals.

The rural school has a waiting list for kindergarten enrollees through 2018, but that wasn’t the case in 2006 when Newton School District officials considered closing Walton Elementary because enrollment had declined to 100 students.

To save the school, former superintendent John Morton, proposed that it apply for charter school status and focus on agriculture and hands-on learning, making it eligible for federal grant money to get started.

“Charter schools were envisioned to be demonstration or innovative schools,” Morton says. “They create a different focus on learning.”

Since Walton Rural Life Center opened in 2007, student enrollment has increased to 167, and fundraising is underway to build more classrooms. Some parents drive 30 miles to bring their children to the school.

“We never dreamed it would be this successful,” says principal Natise Vogt. “Our students are happy. They love to come to school. We give them a real-life purpose to learn.”

Whether they’re calculating how much hay is needed per cow, measuring boards for wishing wells being built by fourth-graders for a fundraiser, or counting change from the sale of eggs and vegetables, students learn the practical side of math. Science comes alive, too; it wiggles in the worm composting bins and whirs in the wind turbine that powers the school’s greenhouse. Reading books about cows, pigs and sheep is essential.

“My son gets to see how we get our food,” says Angela Schmidt, mother of kindergartener Kaleb Wilhelm. “He helps with the pigs and chickens. He’s watched the chickens go from eggs to being hatched to chirping in the classroom.”

The town has rallied behind the country school. Residents drop spare change into the school bus bank at the town’s Hilltop Convenient Store to help buy animal feed and supplies. Walton Lions Club members helped build the school’s barn, and local farmers have adopted classes, which make regular excursions to visit their mentors in the field.

Instead of trying to envision the size of an acre from a textbook, students measure an acre at the nearby corn and soybean farm of Neal Williams.

“I have them come out when I’m planting, and they can see the rows and the seeds in the ground,” says Williams. “One bag of corn has 25,400 seeds. We measure how far apart the seeds are, and they figure how many seeds per acre.”

Each week, former Mayor Evan Johnson brings to school an antique tool from his 2,000-plus collection. “I tell them about the patent on it and what it was used for,” says Johnson, who passed around an 1877 wooden-handled wrench on one visit.

Not only are youngsters having fun learning, but their achievement-test scores rank in the top 5 percent in the state. Educators from across the nation have visited, and the U.S. Department of Education produced a video about Walton Rural Life Center.

Saving the school saved the town, says John Esau, president of Walton State Bank. “People choose their location to live because of what the school is like,” says Esau. “We’re all so proud of the school.”