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By Colleen Surridge

Parsons Sun

April 21, 2008

OSWEGO -- About a mile south of U.S. 400 on Wallace Road, otherwise known as Montana Road, off to the right, sits a small rural school on a large, nearly barren piece of land -- save the buildings and playground equipment.

That is all about to change after the Kansas State Board of Education approved a charter for the Service Valley school this week. Soon, passersby will see lush garden plots, a greenhouse and animal pens on the school grounds as it moves to project-based learning with an agricultural and environmental emphasis.

Service Valley Charter Academy will open its doors next school year, but much of what students will learn will be outside.

"There are only three schools like this in the U.S.: ours, one in Walton, Kansas, which we will actually be cooperating with and the third is in Minnesota," said principal Mikel Ward.

"I had a vision for this particular school. It's always struggled with an identity, because we don't have a town. ... The only identity we have is that we are a rural community school," Ward said. "For about three years I've been envisioning how I can bring about a better identity for us. The roots of this school are in agriculture. I started here 15 years ago and it was mostly rural farming families. Most of the farms have dried up though, and now we draw students from local communities."

"If you ask a student now, 'Where do tomatoes and milk come from?,' they would say they come from Wal-Mart. They are disconnected with rural culture. They have no idea how to grow a tomato or where eggs come from," he said.

With this in mind, Ward's vision formed into developing a charter school grounded in agriculture.

"We want to use modern technology and modern education to teach these students the skills of how to grow their own food and survive. We will incorporate a lot of math and science in this curriculum," Ward said. "We are not trying to go back to Laura Ingalls. We are not trying to go backwards, but go forwards. We will have a cooperative agreement with the Kansas State University Agricultural Department."

Teachers will spend two weeks this summer attending classes at K-State to learn how to incorporate the agriculture-themed curriculum into their classrooms.

"It still has to fit within the scope of No Child Left Behind and we still have to make adequate yearly progress. We will still be held accountable," Ward said.

The focal point of the school will be the greenhouse. The large 16-foot by 30-foot greenhouse, fully functional with utilities, and sitting on a foundation, will be tied to the city of Oswego, which has been named a Tree City USA.

"We want to plant a north wind break, which is greatly needed, and we hope to work cooperatively with the city of Oswego to provide them with trees. Inside the greenhouse, we intend to grow trees from actual seeds. The trees can also be donated to places like the Boy Scouts and churches," Ward said. "The vegetables, like cucumbers and tomatoes, can be self-sustaining too, because they can be sold at the Farmer's Markets or sold to parents and patrons."

The students also will have animals to care for, such as chickens and a bucket calf.

"We are going to get about $400,000 over three years. Some of those monies will help with the initial purchase of the animals and then what we expect is the animals to sustain themselves. Parents and patrons will be able to purchase eggs and at the end of each year the bucket calf can be sold at the local market. That profit will purchase the next one."

Science teacher Ray Huff, a third-generation farmer, will be coordinating the charter.

Huff said another big aspect of the student's education will be field trips.

"We will be going to area farms. There are some regulations involved, but we want to take the kids to an ethanol plant, a wind farm, a dairy farm and a lot of other places. The grant will be able to afford us the opportunity to get kids out of the classroom."

This summer, the greenhouse will be built, ground tilled for plots, fences put up and shelters for the animals built. The school will be doing much of the work themselves, and will likely seek volunteers to assist.

"When you drive by this school you are going to know exciting things are happening," Ward said.

In year two of the grant, Ward said, hydroponics will be added to the greenhouse.

"In year two we will also get our wind turbine, a corn-burning stove, and a weather station."

The education the students receive will go much deeper than math, science, reading and writing.

In addition to learning project development, implementation and evaluation, along with creative problem solving, Ward said, "This will help the students to develop interpersonal skills, communication skills, help them learn to work together in groups so they can interact verbally and socially. All that is an education in itself. For so many kids it's all about me and to heck with you. This will give them a new perspective. ... And you ask kids about chores, it's a foreign term to them. This will let us get outside the box a bit, and help the kids learn a work ethic as well."

Huff said the charter school also will have a new Web site to keep patrons updated on all the projects going on at the school throughout the year.

"It's going to be cool," Huff said. "And what's neat is it could all be self sustaining in the long run."

Ward said three years ago the school had only 43 students. Now there are 71, and it is hoped there will be many more with the changes.

"We will continue with open enrollment, although there is an out-of-district application process and a cap on each grade level of 20 students," Ward said.

Work toward the new beginning is only weeks away.

"It's extremely exciting," Ward said. "I'm just tickled. It's nice to lose sleep over excitement."

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