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New type of school offers fresh air and fresh thinking

Every day for the past six years, Lindsey Morrison’s son has asked her, ‘Mommy, do I have to go to school today?’

“I started to think of school as a jail sentence for him,” said the Airdrie-area mother. “For him, it’s just not a good fit for how he learns. It’s not a good fit for how so many kids learn.

“I got disillusioned by the current system.”

But in the summer, Morrison has “a totally different child” on her acreage near Airdrie. During those months spent outside of school, her son runs around in the fresh air all day, feeding animals, fixing fences, and learning the ins and outs of farm life.

So last year, Morrison reached out to Rocky View Schools with a simple goal — making education look a little different for children like her son.

“Not everybody is going to be a lawyer or a doctor. So how do you give these kids who really march to the beat of their own drum a way to get engaged in school?”

And from that simple goal, The Farm was born.

“I knew I could either sit back and let my little guy slip through the cracks, or I could try to do something different and see what happens,” said Morrison.

“It snowballed from there.”

Launching in the fall as a pilot project, The Farm is an alternative school program that replaces traditional classroom education in favour of hands-on learning in a farm environment. During the first year of the program, registered Grade 9 and 10 students will learn the provincial curriculum through the lens of agriculture.

Working on 15 acres of donated farmland, the students will try their hands at running a farm business in one of three areas — small livestock; vegetable and herb production; and grains, pulses, and oilseeds.

And in order to run these farm businesses, the students will need to learn how to manage and market their products while considering the environmental and social impacts of their operation. Through field trips to other farms, processing facilities, and post-secondary institutions, the students will learn about the different facets of food production and farm business management.

“These kids are going to learn how to work with livestock, how to grow crops, how to manage a business,” said Morrison. “They’re going to learn so many different things, and they’re going to walk out of school with the ability to use their skills.

“I want them to learn how to work with their hands and use their heads.”

Community connections

But the ultimate goal of the program isn’t to create a swath of fresh-faced new farmers (though that would be a welcome side-effect). Rather, the program is designed to help these students learn in a way that better suits their learning style.

“We want to do school a little bit differently,” said Mark Turner, one of the teachers who will be working at The Farm.

“Learning doesn’t have to be the traditional way that we’ve done it for all these years. We need to be able to engage kids in more hands-on learning.”

For families like the Morrisons, that philosophy is a welcome change from the challenges they’ve experienced with the traditional school system.

“There are so many kids out there with potential, and we just have to reach them on their level with something they’re interested in,” said Morrison.

And so far, this new approach to education seems to be resonating with parents and students alike. The first year of the program is a pilot year for up to 40 Grade 9 and 10 students, and if that’s successful, the program will be extended to Grades 8 to 11 the following year and to Grades 7 to 12 the year after that.

“We feel pretty confident that there will be a lot of interest in it,” said Turner. “Everybody seems to be super supportive of it.”

That community connection is vital, he added.

“We want to demonstrate that knowledge can be found beyond school,” he said. “The learning that can take place at The Farm is something the whole community can get involved in.”

While the use of the land has been donated, The Farm will need additional support from the agriculture community in order to succeed, said Turner.

“We’re trying to start a farm school, but we need help,” he said. “We need experts — people who can provide opportunities for our kids, whether we come there or they come to us and share their expertise. The community is what’s going to make this program successful.”

For more information about The Farm, visit rvsthefarm.ca.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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