Schools bring ag into the classroom

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on changes in teaching about food and agriculture in area schools.
ADDISON COUNTY — In Steve Colangeli’s classroom, students learn biology, chemistry, environmental science and economics, plus job skills like teamwork.
But Colangeli’s classroom doesn’t have four walls. Instead, it’s rows of raised beds, 10 in all. And despite the looming winter, his students are already working to get the beds ready for next year’s growing season.
Colangeli is a new teacher at the alternative education program at Middlebury Union High School, and he is piloting one of a growing number of programs countywide that are focused on bringing agriculture into the classroom — or on bringing the classroom into the fields.
The way Colangeli sees it, growing plants is a way to give context to classroom learning.
“I’m a hands-on learner myself, and a lot of my students are, too,” he said.
The alternative education center is housed in a building on the Charles Street campus called “The Ranch,” and this year hosts 12 students who were not performing well in a traditional academic setting.
This fall, the students spent a lot of their time outside preparing their garden: They planned and built the raised beds, calculated how much topsoil they would need, and are spreading compost over the beds. In the classroom, they are also learning about how to test soil composition. Colangeli said they’ll be planting garlic and spinach before winter sets in, though most of the planting won’t happen until next spring.
“It’s pretty fun because we get to work outside,” said one of the students, who said he’d worked in a large garden at home, but gardening during school hours was a new experience.
Colangeli said he expects the students to get the most out of the experience next spring, when they can see the most payoff for the work they are doing outdoors.
“I see the buy-in when kids actually start planting their seeds and see them come out of the ground,” he said. “There’s a lot of responsibility — you’re taking care of something that’s living.”
As schools think more about incorporating local food and nutrition education into their curriculums, agricultural programs are experiencing something of a renaissance, although high school education programs have been slower to change.
“The whole farm-to-school movement … really started in elementary schools,” said Lynn Coale, executive director of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, which serves 17 Addison County towns.
Many of the elementary schools in the county — including those in Ferrisburgh, Cornwall and Ripton — boast vibrant garden programs that are incorporated into education and food services.
But Coale said that as students grow older, there is more pressure for them to either spend time in the classroom or to learn technical agricultural skills.
“(High school) agricultural education programs have been pretty traditional, really about commodity production,” he explained.
PAHCC’s high school agricultural programs are largely based on this traditional model: They include forestry and natural resources education, plant and animal science, sustainable landscaping, agricultural business and power diesel technology.
Recently, however, Coale said the programs are starting to adapt, extending agricultural education beyond the technical aspects, and to involve more students in hands-on learning.
“We’re looking at the whole food chain process, and that’s kind of guiding the changes that we’re making,” said Coale. “It’s more than (agriculture), it’s food storage, food processing, food marketing. We see a resurgence in food processing, especially in the adult programs.”
Right now, a grant funds collaborative work between PAHCC’s agriculture teachers and the math and science teachers at Vergennes Union High School. Coale hopes the grant will increase the rigor of science education in agriculture classes and bring the agricultural context into high school classrooms.
“We want to know, ‘Are we using the same language?’” Coale said. “The content knowledge — they’ve all got that. What we’re doing is more about the partnering.”
Coale added that agriculture is relevant not just in science classes, but also in literature — the agricultural landscape plays a role in literature by Vermont writers — and in history.
Willowell Foundation Executive Director David Schein said the Walden Project, the foundation’s environmental education program for VUHS students, integrates its half-acre garden into many aspects of the curricula, not just science.
“The act of gardening — people have been writing about it since the Bible,” Schein said. “And in terms of biology and history — you can connect it to all sorts of subjects in the curriculum, including ones that are tested.”
Increasingly, said Coale, young farmers will be ones who have connected with just that interdisciplinary nature of agriculture and gardening.
So Coale said education’s focus, going forward, should have a more collaborative take on agricultural education. He hopes, in the coming years, to have his own students raise chickens with elementary school children, in an effort that he termed “chick-to-plate.”
“I don’t think the next generation of agriculturalists are going to be sixth-generation farmers,” he said. “I think they’re going to be first-generation farmers that are well educated, that are returning to the land.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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