WALTON, Kan. - The door to a hen house burst open on a chilly winter day and several south-central Kansas charter school students scrambled inside, squealing "Thank you!" to the chickens as they checked for eggs and replenished their grain.
It's a morning ritual at Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center, whose focus on agriculture saved it from closing. The school now attracts a steady stream of visitors from around the country who watch students learn through projects that range from selling eggs to showing pigs at the county fair.
The farm curriculum, although still relatively unusual, has been replicated in other Kansas schools and proven successful in more urban environments, including Chicago and Philadelphia.
"Kids love it," said Walton Principal Natise Vogt, adding that the students fight over cleaning up the animals' droppings. "That's one of the things that's important to us. We want kids to enjoy school. We want them to be happy and want to come to school, and that's what the hands-on learning does."
Located in a farming community of 235 people, the Walton school had barely 80 students when the school district decided to transform the kindergarten to fourth-grade building into an agriculture-focused charter school. Since making the switch in 2007, enrollment has grown to 183 students.
Only about 10 percent of the students at the school about 30 miles north of Wichita live on farms. But all of the kids beg to give Freckles the calf his bottle and Eeyore the donkey his breakfast ration.
Cody Eye, 10, of Newton, said students learn math by measuring food and make money for the school by selling the animals.
"It teaches us responsibility," he said. "It teaches us how to take care of animals."
The school's profile got a boost when the U.S. Department of Education, which provided a grant to get the school started, produced a video about the transformation. The community also bought into the project, with one farmer donating runt pigs and another loaning the donkey during the school year.
Today, parents frequently call the school, eager to nab a spot for their children; one of the latest additions to the waiting list was a 3-week-old baby.
The farming theme also has a long track record of success at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, where students care for piglets, chickens and horses and grow plants. More than 3,000 students apply each year for about 180 freshman-class openings, principal William Hook said.
"The nice thing is that even the kids who never revisit the idea of agriculture; they still benefit from their ag education, the ideals of get up early, work hard and stay late," Hook said.
In Philadelphia, the W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences' 130-acre campus features an area for field crops and livestock pastures. Students at the magnet school have designed an exhibit for a flower show and participate in meat and dairy cattle judging clubs.
The ag curriculum efforts aren't without bumps, though. Next Frontier Academy, an Akron, Ohio-based charter school serving seventh- to ninth-graders, had a goal of 150 students when it opened last fall. But by January, its enrollment was hovering around only 45 students, said John Hairston, one of the founders.
Still, Hairston was encouraged, saying the school is receiving more applications and that businesses are coming forward with donations, including a greenhouse.
"The whole premise of agriculture is sustainability, and that's what we are trying to teach our kids, to learn how to sustain themselves," Hairston said.
The Walton school, though never low-performing, has seen test scores increase by about 8 percentage points since switching to the agriculture theme. For the past four years, all of its third- and fourth-graders have measured proficient or higher in math, Vogt said, crediting that to the "excellent problem-solving skills" students learn.
Vogt said agriculture-themed schools owe much of their success to the hands-on projects.
Some fall flat, she says, recalling the boys who tried to make their own incubator to hatch duck eggs. The eggs went bad, but Vogt didn't mind because the students figured out that the reason was the incubator wasn't keeping the temperature consistent.
Other projects are wildly successful. Take the students who worried the barn wasn't warm enough for the newborn lambs, and designed a solar-powered heater.
Kindergartners make lip balm from soybeans, one of the crops they study, and sell it for $3 a tube. Students learn about liquids and solids, fill the order themselves and have used the money they've raise to purchase two iPads for the classroom.
The kindergartners also hatch chicken eggs in an incubator to help them learn about the life cycle and help out with the school's pigs. After two first-graders show the hogs at the county fair, the animals are processed and the meat is used in school meals.
"My kids understand farm to plate," kindergarten teacher Rhonda Roux said. "We love (the animals). We care for them. But they understand that we do it to raise a quality product."
The older students are responsible for the sheep. During a recent class period, some turned raw wool into thread, while others practiced weaving and knitting using store-bought yarn.
Clayton Smith, 10, said he likes that students don't just sit around.
"We don't want to do papers all day," said Smith, who lives on a farm in Walton. "We can just learn from our teachers and being outside."
Ag-based curriculum invigorates Kansas school