Many communities around the country are completing their first week of school. With an eye toward maintaining and improving education, schools are devising new curricula and adopting new technologies. They also are dealing with new challenges like shifting enrollments and a teacher shortage, courtesy of a generation that is entering retirement.
But not all educational innovation lies in the adoption or the development of something new. A case in point can be found in the Northeast, where an ambitious educational effort is decidedly low-tech.
It's the start of another busy school day in north-central Massachusetts. Spring is in the air and it's the time of year when, ordinarily, students dream about the carefree days of summer.
But these 5th graders can't wait to get off the bus. They energetically grab their bags and make their way to the bunkhouse they'll call home for the next three days.
Welcome to the Farm School... a 12-year-old project seeking to connect young hearts, hands and minds to the land. Ben Holmes is the school's founder and executive director.
Ben Holmes: "It's a very simple model. I think with very profound results. Simply, what it is, is adults working with children on the land, nothing more. And they're working their children from the age of about 7 to about 16. We see about 1400 kids a year that come here and they come here for at least three days. We're determined that they come and spend the night and wake up in the morning and do chores and be a real part of the rhythm of a farm life. And while they're here, they do the work that needs to be done."
Founding the Farm School fulfilled a dream for Holmes. Born and raised in Marin County, California, He spent his summers farming with his uncles in Ohio.
Later, Holmes took a teaching job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he noticed something different about his urban students.
Ben Holmes: "I saw that those kids had not been given the kind of education that I had been given by my uncles. And I think what was lacking for them, was that sense of texture in the world, that sense of realness as well as that sense of mattering, that what they did mattered in some way. I think this effects them in every which way that they act, as citizens. If you know you matter, if you know, what you do, matters, then you'll do it well."
When Market to Market visited the Farm School, in May, nearly two dozen students from Brookline, Massachusetts were hard at work planting this year's crops.
Susan Wang spent a portion of the day preparing beds for vegetable transplants. Despite being two generations removed from her family's rural roots, Wang seems to enjoy the experience.
Susan Wang: "I think it's really great. We get to do things we've never done before when we're in school. I think it's great. My grandmother used to have a farm, but I was never around it."
John Nichols: "You wanna' be a farmer?"
Susan Wang: "Sure. It's fun to do, but over time I guess you sort of get used to it and you get much faster done. And I think it's great that they grow food and they don't have to always go to the supermarket and stuff and they use what they have."
The Farm School's hands-on curriculum offers students an unparalleled opportunity to learn about agriculture, animal husbandry, and themselves.
And while milking a cow is a new experience for most of the students, Holmes claims the dairy operation is anything but a novelty.
Ben Holmes: "We're milking about 15 cows now. And we ship our milk with 8 other family farms in the region and we market it separately, under our own label, it's called, "Our Family Farm Milk" and we market it as being local. And it's a marketing initiative that works. We've been doing this for about three years now, and we've made a profit for the last two. So it's a working initiative. "
With a staff of 10 and an annual operating budget of 250,000 dollars, the Farm School isn't exactly small potatoes.
The non-profit corporation is funded by sales of its products, donations and tuition paid by public and private schools.
Tuition is charged on a sliding scale with some schools paying nothing and others paying 65-dollars per child per night.
John Nichols: "Is it hard work? What's the hardest thing?"
Gordon Starr: "Probably doing it under a big hot sun?"
5th grade social studies and math teacher Michael Roth claims the experience is invaluable.
Michael Roth: "The kids have always loved it. Even the kids who are scared to come, they always love it and you see it in their faces, and you know, whether they are making butter or washing the dishes or feeding a cow, or swinging, it doesn't matter, they're just happy here."
Despite a daunting list of work, the students enthusiastically tackle their chores. Jobs that might be too much for one worker are readily completed with two or more.
While Mac, the draft horse works some of the larger fields, "kid power" is employed on smaller plots.
Alex Page: "I think it's just so we can see how the horse feels."
John Nichols: "Do you like it here?"
Alex Page: "I love it here."
John Nichols: "Why?"
Alex Page: "I like the bunks and just being outside."
Zoe Abbett: "It's better than being inside and doing paper work."
Kate Riemanis, the Farm School's Program Director claims teamwork is just one of many things students learn down on the farm.
Kate Riemanis: "They learn some real concrete things. They certainly learn about the manure circle, you know, what it's really like to milk a cow or that gardening can be fun and not just, "oh, weeding mom's garden". But I think deeper than that, they get just a real chance to be free outside and to be on a farm and ....to kind of connect with something that's rare in our society, that they still need and they still want but they kind of connect back with something really special."
Holmes claims the students aren't the only ones learning at the Farm School.
Ben Holmes: "I have learned in this work, that indeed it is my calling. That this is the work that I was meant to do. It is.....certainly, I think everybody is searching for that. So, for me personally, that's been extremely fulfilling. And for me, joyful work, working with children and seeing them brought into a new world. Twice and it's terribly exciting."
For Market To Market, I'm John Nichols.