By Harley Buchholz
Elementary and middle school students in Waupun's School for Agricultural and Environment studies Charter school are learning their reading, writing and arithmetic often blended into projects that center around agriculture and the environment.
SAGES is unique in Wisconsin
"We believe agriculture and the environment are reflective of our community," says Principal Nick Vertz. He describes the curriculum as project-based learning and that was very evident during the school's recent Earth Day observance. In the classroom and outside in a school forest, enthused groups of students moved among teaching stations with Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, DNR, NRCS and forestry specialists and volunteers covering topics on soils, nutrient management, tree-planting, woodland tree and plant identification, invasive species and others.
In its third year, SAGES has a teaching staff of nine, plus a reading specialist and special needs services to work with 123 students in grades K-7 (8th grade will be added next year) and another 20 in a 4-year-old morning kindergarten. Backed by community support and planning and implementation grants, the school opened following nearly two years of planning. Its programs continue to evolve, Vertz says.
The school is based in a former Fox Lake elementary school building but the entire surrounding area provides classroom space, including a school garden, outdoor classroom, recently built chicken coop and school district forest, all at Fox Lake, along with visits to area farms, agricultural businesses and natural areas. There are "a local opportunities where learning takes place," Vertrz says.
A grant from the Dodge County Farm Technology Days Committee "turned into a chicken coop project led by 6th grade students," he adds. Chickens arrived in May to populate the new coop, according to Sheri Hicken, a teacher and the school's community outreach coordinator. A "guest cow," watched from calfhood, often visited the school, compliments of an area farmer. She died after giving birth so now her first calf is brought to school. Hicken says that the death of the cow and the farmer's explanation of how the loss affected his farm's economy "helped them (students) understand the realities of an agricultural business." Fourth graders keep up a blog on the calf's progress. Older students often are called on to mentor lower grades.
Lunchroom leftovers are composted
SAGES follows a regular school calendar with the rest of the Waupun Area School District but families line up to help keep projects growing over the summer.
There is a lot of collaboration with University of Wisconsin Extension, Dodge County Master Gardeners and retired teacher volunteers, Hicken notes.
"I think the ag community from individuals to businesses has given lots of support," she says. Her own two sons are 1st and 6th graders in SAGES.
The district-wide program draws two-thirds of the student body from the Waupun area, the rest from in and around Fox Lake. Ten are open enrollment students and they make up a full 25% of the district's total open enrollment, according to Vertz.
Fifth to 7th graders, he says, "are more on their own, with guidance, in selecting projects and ... standards associated with the tasks they need to do. Projects in the lower grades are more teacher-led."
Teachers at SAGES and the Waupun Junior/Senior High School Agriculture Department are working to align their curriculum, creating the state's only K-12 agriculture program.
SAGES is on Facebook at www.facebook.comschoolforagriculturalandenvironmentalstudies
and on the web at http://www/waupun.k12.wi.us/sages/
Buchholz writes from Fond du Lac.