It is the middle of February. The chickens are all cooped up, the cows are shaggy and the nanny goat has just presented the farm with a tiny kid. The sheep look warm.
The pipes to the barns froze when the electricity failed, so youngsters are hauling buckets of water twice a day. Stalls are being cleaned, three guys are stacking firewood and, in the corner of the greenhouse, nasturtiums and seedlings grow, hoping for spring.
It’s a typical midwinter farm scene with an untypical cast of characters.
The girls cuddling the goat’s offspring, the boys loading the wood and the workers with shovels and pitchforks are students at the Hershey Montessori Farm School in Montville, Ohio.
The farmyard is one of their classrooms.
The school, for students in grades seven through nine, was established on state Route 528 eight years ago to continue the pedagogy of Italian education reformer Maria Montessori.
According to the Montessori philosophy, youngsters need different environments as they move from one developmental level to another, said Laurie Ewert-Krocker, assistant head of the school, sitting in the cozy library in the home-like school.
Montessori established a developmental model that places students in the right place at the right time for them.
“A young adolescent needs to learn to be a member of society,” Ewert-Krocker said, so the school is set up as a farm with the students taking on the responsibilities many farm youngsters grow up doing.
“They are genuinely running a microcommunity,” she said.
Playing a part
Each of the 54 students has the feeling he or she is an important part of the whole. They own and operate the farm, which supports itself separately from the school. The day-to-day working environment gives them the opportunity to learn about division of labor, cooperation, problem solving and conflict resolution, Ewert-Krocker said.
To the students, farm chores take center stage right up there with morning class studies. Both are integrated to give students hands-on experience along with academic material.
“The day-to-day working environment gives them the opportunity to learn about division of labor, cooperation, problem solving and conflict resolution.”
Hershey Montessori Farm School assistant head
Additionally, everyone takes a turn in the kitchen and laundry has to be done, as well, said eighth-grader Savannah Roach, 14.
“Nothing goes undone,” she said, but most students get used to the routine easily, discovering that being responsible can be a positive feeling. “It feels like you’re lacking when you don’t do your chores,” Roach said.
A tour of the new barn reveals a couple of well-grown hogs almost ready for slaughter.
Lucas Venalick, 13, and in seventh grade, said the meat is brought back to the school for meals. Only chickens are slaughtered at the school — a job a student can opt out of, he said.
The cream-colored cow in the barnyard was recently artificially inseminated with help from students, Savannah said. And the retired mare donated to the school kept her rear to the stall door, waiting out yet another long winter.
The barn is overseen by Nacho Villa, who teaches both land management and Spanish at the school. Watching the students mature from month to month, he is convinced of the value of the Montessori method.
“The program re-establishes a connection with nature that people have lost,” Villa said. “It’s really the grounding part of it that happens.”
His young charges learn about responsibility and establish a relationship with the animals they nurture. And then?
“We eat them,” Venalick said.
Savannah, a vegetarian, said if she did eat meat, she would have standards.
“I’d rather eat something I know had a good home and was well taken care of,” she said.
“Not filled with chemicals and other yucky bad stuff,” added eighth-grader Ellie Parsons, 14.
All students at Hershey Montessori choose an occupation class that puts them in the barn part of the time. Not only do they learn about agriculture, they participate in its overall operation, Ewert-Krocker said.
If a student feels a change needs to be made, she can make a proposal.
The bioshelter/greenhouse, heated through the winter with a composting manure system and an outdoor wood-burning stove, is set up to grow seedlings for the half-acre garden that helps feed the students and staff, Parsons said.
“We started seeding last week,” Roach said.
The seedlings will go into the garden in time for a yield before school is out for the summer, she said.
The occupation class includes a team of students that takes on a task necessary at the school. Students must become experts on anything related to the project, which takes them into the realms of science, economics and other subjects.
The youngsters are expected to know the material in order to accomplish the task.
“It is all multidisciplinary and relevant,” Ewert-Krocker said.
For instance, in researching the development of a store for the school, students learn about business and money management.
“Life skills, accounting, product management, communication — these are all learned by being in a business environment,” she said.
The wool from the campus sheep, eggs from the chickens, milk and soap from the goats, honey, beeswax and candles from the bee hives, maple syrup, cutting boards and kitchen utensils made in the shop and holiday baskets are all sellable items.
Money from sales goes back into the program for further production, Parsons said.
The students also serve pancake breakfasts and have an annual harvest festival to support the program.
“It’s a really good learning experience,” Roach said. “You realize how much it costs to run a farm.”
The school does not subsidize the program, Ewert-Krocker said, and students are responsible for the $30,000 budget.
“That’s a lot of money for students to handle,” she said, adding it is an important part of Montessori’s philosophy of production and exchange.
The interdependence of human beings is emphasized, and the global nature of the market is part of the scheme.
“It also helps adolescents appreciate real work when they have to cooperate physically,” she added.
The 11 full-time staff includes three house mothers for the students who board at the school, such as Roach, who is from Portland, Ore. Parsons and Venalick are day students and live in the area.
There is a lot of cross-teaching and task sharing among the staff, Ewert-Kocker said, to get the students ready for a high school experience and, eventually, college.
This year’s graduates from Hershey will have the opportunity to attend the Montessori High School of University Circle in Cleveland, which will open in the fall, she said.
Only two of the students live on the farm, Ewert-Kocker said, so most won’t carry their farm experience on to careers, but the micro-environment they learn about will aid them in many different ways over the years.
Like planting the garden, it is hard to know exactly what will thrive and where it will end up. And, like the garden, students learn to appreciate the school for what it brings them.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from it,” Roach said.