Children learn by doing at Walton charter school

Staff writer

Imagine a school where there are no textbooks, no worksheets, or no tests.

That is what it’s like for students who attend the Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center.

Formerly Walton Elementary School, the facility opened in August 2007 as a kindergarten through fourth-grade ag charter school. As a charter school, it has autonomy in how it teaches students, but it is subject to the same academic standards as a traditional public school.

Natise Vogt has been the principal at Walton since 2005. At that time, the school had 80 students and was threatened with closure by the Newton unified school district to which it belongs.

The district superintendent suggested making it an ag charter school. Vogt, a city girl, resisted the challenge for several months, but when the teachers serving under her agreed to try it, she took the plunge.

Now she is hooked. She thinks hands-on learning is the only way to teach.

“I have a very strong belief that children shouldn’t be bored at school,” she said. “They need to have fun while learning.”

Instead of having textbooks and listening to lectures, students do various projects that incorporate the academics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. They conduct research on topics of interest using the Internet, books, journals, and outside experts.

A barn on school grounds is used to house goats, pigs, sheep, a donkey, and bottle calves. Chores are rotated among the various homeroom groups.

Chickens are hatched in incubators on site. Children observe as the embryos develop into chicks. After hatching, the chicks are transferred to an onsite chicken coop, where they grow into laying hens. Second grade students have the responsibility to gather the eggs, wash them, and put them in cartons. They sell the eggs for $2 a dozen. They are required to keep records.

Each classroom has a farm family assigned to it, whose members provide helpful information and give tours.

The school also has multiple gardens tended by the children.

Vogt has 30 years of experience as a special education teacher, but the Walton school has no special education. Two teachers conduct a “learning lab,” where children can go when they need extra help.

Students are encouraged to come up with their own projects. Teachers guide them in planning, organizing, and completing the projects. When projects fail, students learn it is possible to learn from failure. They also learn the appropriate behavior for working together.

“Walton students are engaged learners,” Vogt said. “They have the ‘need to know’ and excitement about learning.”

Although there is no set curriculum, students are graded on the work they do. Vogt said Walton students finish in the top 5 percent on state assessments, and when they go on to conventional public schools, they do well.

“We aren’t teaching farming, we’re teaching how to learn,” she said.

Walton Rural Life Center has an enrollment this year of 190. Students come mainly from Walton and Newton. There is a waiting list. The school is one of only 11 charter schools currently operating in Kansas.

 

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