Farming theme saves small Kansas school

Mar 27, 2013 by


— The little Holstein was not happy and Keegan Rousseau didn’t know why.

The calf kept mouth-butting the bottle Keegan held through the fence, practically knocking the kindergartner down.

“Hold it up on the end,” Maylee Edwards coached him.

Ahh, that did it. Sure is good to have a fourth-grader around at chore time.

Each morning kids get off the bus at this K-4 elementary school, put on boots and head to the barn out back. There’s a hen house and corral, too. Sunny, rain or snow, these students tend sheep and hogs, bottle-feed calves, put out hay and gather eggs.

Now with spring here, the 167 students will soon start gardening. All the planting, weeding and picking.

They may not know it, but they are saving this school. Their school. A few years back it was losing students and on the chopping block.

Today, enrollment has nearly doubled. Parents drive 30 miles from other towns so their children can attend. The kindergarten waiting list goes to 2018, and educators from as far as New Zealand have come to see the turnaround success of the Walton Rural Life Center, which sits on a gravel road just short of a creek on the west edge of this town of 250.

Before Keegan and Maylee went to feed those calves on a recent cold morning, they measured — so much milk replacement to so much hot water. They and other students know how much hay is needed per head. They multiply and divide. Later in a classroom, students weigh eggs for grading. These kids know if they have 33 eggs and two are broken, how many more they need to fill out three cartons.

The math book at this school is a barnyard. And the school’s math proficiency, according to the state of Kansas, is 100 percent.

“Math isn’t numbers on a piece of paper,” Principal Natise Vogt said.

No, Walton kids lug it in buckets, pat it on the nose and fill it to a mark. Math gets their hands dirty.

When the school nearly closed six years ago, officials in the Newton School District changed it to a charter with an agricultural theme. Science, reading, math — all tied to the barn out back, with each class paired with a local farm family.

The U.S. Department of Education came to Walton and made a video. On the wall outside the principal’s office is a U.S. map with pins showing all the places visitors have come from: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Georgia, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C.

New Zealand had to be horned in at the bottom.

These visitors see students such as Eliza Epp, who on a recent morning measured, precisely, white stuff from a jar to mix with water.

“We don’t know the real name so we call it egg powder,” Eliza, bending to get a good eye, said at the sink in her classroom.

But she does know what it’s for.

“When you wash an egg, you wash off the natural oil. This puts an oil back on to seal the shell and keeps the egg fresh.”

She’s a second-grader. Impressed? Ask her how udder balm can heal the dry, scaly leg of a laying hen.

Big trucks hardly slow when they rumble through Walton, about 30 miles north of Wichita.

There’s not much here. The co-op elevator is the biggest business. Across the way is a convenience store, a restaurant, a bank. That’s about it. By the time highway travelers hit the city limit sign and decide to stop at the Whistle Stop Cafe, they’ve already gone out the other side. It’s easy to just go on despite the sign touting “Granny’s Homemade Pies.”

Inside Walton school, photos of high school senior classes line the main hall. The first one is 1915 and shows four girls and five boys. The last picture was for 1964.

By 2005, only about 75 students attended Walton Elementary.

“We knew we had to do something or we were going to lose it,” said Vogt, the principal.

John Morton, then the Newton School District superintendent, had an idea. The state of Kansas had made funds available for charter schools, which typically have specialized themes and innovative teaching strategies.

Morton’s strategy for Walton: project-based “hands-on” learning — a school’s entire curriculum tied to a life skill.

“Why not turn it into a charter with an agriculture theme?” Morton proposed for Walton.

Not exactly the salvation Principal Vogt was looking for.

“I’m a city girl,” she told him.

But she wanted the school to survive. She demanded one thing: The whole staff had to buy in. She didn’t want a teacher who was scared of a rooster.

The new Walton Rural Life Center started in 2007 with state assessment rates of 85.9 percent for reading and 86.7 percent for math. The next year, the rates rose to 96.7 percent for reading and 100 percent for math.

They’ve held steady since. Not bad for an idea to merely save a school.

“Fair to say, it has far exceeded our expectations,” said Morton, who retired in 2011.

Only a handful of students are actual farm kids. Some come on a bus. But many arrive in cars because they live outside the attendance area, from towns such as Sedgwick, Hesston, Halstead, Whitewater and Peabody.

About 36 kids have signed up for kindergarten next fall, but the school has room for only 20. The district is trying to add two classrooms by then. The long-term goal is a $3 million addition to allow expansion to preschool through eighth grade.

Sommer Smith, who runs a ranch with her husband and serves on the advisory board, said she loves to hear of someone from a thousand miles away coming to Walton.

“From how far they come to get here, to see what we do here, yes, we are proud of this school,” said Smith, who with two children in school, is one of the few farm parents.

During the recent blizzard, her son, Clayton, a third-grader, asked her to drive him to the school so he could check on newborn lambs in the barn.

“These kids don’t just sit and learn — they get up and do.”

Responsibility. Vogt loves it when she hears a middle-school teacher say, “You can always tell a Walton kid.”

Visitors notice two things upon arrival at the Walton school.

First off, the sign out front: “Walton Rural Life Center.” Beneath it is another sign: “Fresh Eggs for Sale.” Then walk inside and see a long row of rubber boots along the wall. All colors. Chore boots.

Keegan and Maylee pulled theirs on before going out on a recent morning.

“This takes the place of their mother’s milk,” Maylee said in the barn as they mixed the bottles of milk replacement for the calves.

“They need it to grow,” Keegan said.

Maylee fed the first calf. A teacher, as always, stood nearby.

“First few times he took it slow because he didn’t know how, but he’s doing better now,” Maylee said as the calf took the nipple.

A second calf tried to nudge in.

“She’s jealous because she wants some,” Keegan said.

Nearby, two boys scattered hay. Another watered chickens. A girl fed the lambs. Two more students gathered eggs and another took food to Eeyore the donkey.

Buddy, a golden retriever pup, jumped about.

This goes on every morning, even those bitter cold ones in January. Multi-grade homerooms take turns doing chores, which take about 30 minutes.

“Kids never bellyache,” teacher Rhonda Roax said. “Teachers might, but not the kids. They like getting out there.

“We can’t even punish them with manure duty.”

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