Walton elementary school is second ag ed charter school in U.S.


Staff writer

The elementary school at Walton is in the process of developing a curriculum that is centered around agricultural education.

After opening this fall as Walton 21st Century Rural Life Charter, it is the second such school in the nation.

Charter schools are innovative public schools that are designed to deliver programs tailored to the needs of the communities they serve. They are organized like any other public school.

The rural life school at Walton is in the Newton USD 373 school district. According to the goals stated in its charter, the school's leaders focus on setting and reaching high academic standards for their students while providing hands-on experience in agricultural life.

According to district superintendent John Morton, the district first started brainstorming four years ago for ways to help support the school while creating a unifying identity. The ag education charter school was the result.

The district applied to Kansas Department of Education for a grant from federal money provided to the states for establishment of charter schools.

The median income level, unemployment rate, and high school graduation rate of the people who live in the community were factors that likely entered into approval of the grant.

The school will receive approximately $400,000 during a three-year period.

Extensive planning already has gone into it and is ongoing. According to Morton, the staff has been deeply involved. Some of them took a field trip this past year to the first ag ed charter school in Minnesota, and this summer they underwent training.

Included in the planning are a greenhouse which already has been erected, an incubator, fish pond, weather station, community garden, and animal barn.

The school recently was one of five rural schools selected to receive a wind turbine through the Kansas Wind for Schools program. It is expected to be up and running by the start of the next school year.

Education about wind energy will be incorporated into the school's science curriculum, including how turbines work and how to collect and understand the data the turbine will provide. Morton said any extra energy will be sold to Westar Energy.

Other features that may be instituted in following years are a family-style noon meal, longer school day, and longer school year.

Each classroom partners with an area farm family. The families host field trips and observation times to acquaint students with farm life.

The students, with help from Newton High School vocational education and entrepreneurship classes, are working to create the Walton Salsa Co., to sell their own salsa. Each grade is responsible to produce one of the ingredients in the salsa. The whole process creates a lot of hands-on learning.

Students are responsible to care for animals and plants before and after the school day.

One parent has provided a goat with a pen and feed. The children take care of Petey every day.

"They're learning all about goats," Morton said.

Dyck Arboretum, Hesston, helped to establish a natural area near the school.

In addition to a wind turbine, students will be introduced to other modern technologies such as the use of GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems for tracking cattle and guiding farm equipment through fields.

An addition is being built onto the school to provide more classrooms and space for more activities.

The hope is that a move to a rural life focus with lots of hands-on experience will help children who have problems in school. Morton said one parent from outside the area sent her child to Walton Rural Life this fall and is overwhelmed by his positive response.

According to Morton, the families in the area have been "extremely" supportive.

Enrollment is open to anyone, but the superintendent encourages parents to get their requests in early because the school may fill up.

About 125 students are enrolled this year, and Morton expects enrollment to grow in the next few years to 250. Several students who previously were home-schooled or enrolled in private schools came to Walton this fall.

"The teachers are energized, and the students are excited," Morton said. "We hope to establish the rural life center as a demonstration school for others in rural Kansas to see what can be done to revitalize their schools," he said.