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More in News
Students keep busy at Roberts Farm
GROWING LEADERS — Brandon Nobles, Mikko Liimatta and Kelcey Robichaud work a raised bed at the SAD 17 garden classroom in Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway. The three are part of a group of high school students that have been working in the gardens and helping middle school students through a leadership in transition program at the site.
TRANSFORMATION A view of the future Roberts Farm classroom site taken this spring.
NORWAY — How do middle-schoolers feel about spending part of their summer working in a vegetable garden in between taking summer classes and getting lots of physical activity?
"It's awesome!" is the unanimous response from a group of about 20 sixth- to eighth-graders on their way back from a vigorous walk last Thursday morning.
"I'll take the whole school year up here!" one student exclaims.
"Here" is Roberts Farm Preserve, where 36 area middle-schoolers have been taking part in a new Leadership in Transition program that school officials hope will help ease the sometimes stressful transition to Oxford Hills Middle School.
The students have spent the past three weeks at SAD 17's unique education site on the Preserve that includes two classrooms, three green houses, several acres of vegetable fields and the miles of trails.
They spend their days planting and harvesting vegetables, receiving math and literacy instruction and getting lots and lots of exercise.
In fact, the students can even track how much they're working out – each wears an accelerometer on their wrist that measures how many steps taken, calories burned and hours of activity.
The goal is two full hours of activity a day and the students revel in the challenge.
"I always get two hours!" proudly exclaims one girl.
Pat Carson, the SAD 17 health coordinator, says the students have been learning a lot, even if they don't realize it.
On the same Thursday morning, Carson was supervising a group of students eagerly planting rows of summer squash.
The squash will be part of the 5,000 pounds of produce Carson hopes the farm will produce for Maine Harvest for Hunger this year.
All that food will go directly to families in the Oxford Hills area, according to Barbara Murphy, the Oxford County Harvest for Hunger coordinator.
"I don't think most kids really grasp that they're probably doing as much academics out here as they do [in school]," Carson confides.
The central focus of the middle school program, Carson says, is preventing the learning loss students experience over summer vacation.
"Especially at-risk kids, they lose about two months of learning over the summer," he explains.
"What we're interested in trying to figure out is, does a program like this decrease the learning loss? Does it make it so there is some learning loss? Or do kids even have some academic gains?"
He hopes that after this summer he will have some limited data to help answer that question.
"If we can prove that there is no learning loss and that this type of program is a benefit to the community ... that's where we're setting ourselves up to be a long-term sustainable program," he says.
On the other side of the farm, students from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School are hard at work transferring kale into a raised bed.
Five OHCHS students are part of a youth employment program and have been working at the farm between three and five days a week since early June.
The students are paid an hourly wage from a grant the program received and they are just as excited about coming to work every day as the middle schoolers are.
"It's the first job I've ever looked forward to coming to," says Dylan Cox, an OHCHS senior.
About half of the student's time is spent toiling in the garden – the rest of the time the students work with the middle schoolers as role models.
The students have plenty of work to do – every morning FoodCorps service member Dan Rennie draws up a list of tasks to accomplish during the day, like constructing raised beds, hoeing rows in the field, planting and harvesting crops and of course, lots of weeding.
All five agree that their summer has been well spent – Brandon Nobles, a junior, says learning more about growing vegetables and gardening techniques has been exciting and gratifying.
But the summer program is about more than just learning how to grow vegetables, says Rennie – it's about developing leadership skills.
"The goal? Building young leaders," Rennie declares. "Giving them something they can impart to the next generation."
The high schoolers say working with the younger students has been rewarding – watching middle schoolers go from trepidation to full-on enthusiasm for the farm is a great experience.
"They don't think they're learning, they think they're having fun," says Cox.
Kelcey Robichaud, a junior, says staying active helps the kids focus in the classroom.
"I think being outside helps them learn too," she says. "They're not cooped up in a classroom all day."
The high school students say they will also take a lot away from the experience. They agree the program has made them more responsible and better prepared for the next school year.
All would recommend the job to their friends.
But they hope that as more students come to the classroom during the school year, it will become better known in the community.
"We are kind of out of the way out here," says Robichaud, "I don't know how many people in town know we're here."
Carson is still impressed with how far the site has come in such a short time, and what a success this first summer has been.
He says it could never have happened without support from the Western Foothills Land Trust, that manages the Preserve, or help from the district and community.
Looking down at the site's fields and buildings, he remarks on how far it's come.
"In May it was all mud," Carson remembers.