Rural Kansas charter school featured in US film

? Daily chores like gathering eggs and feeding goats are commonplace for Walton grade school students, but their activities now will be featured on the U.S. Department of Education website.

A film crew, along with agency representative Tim Tuten, will visit Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center Tuesday and Wednesday to highlight the rural-based and hands-on learning taught by educators in the small Harvey County town’s charter school.

The crew also will conduct interviews with farm families, teachers, students and community members. The resulting video will be featured on the education department’s website, highlighting the center as a best practices model of innovation in education.

Principal Natise Vogt calls it “innovative teaching ideas in a rural setting.”

“The kids are excited,” she said.

Newton Superintendent John Morton suggested the charter school concept as a way to save the school when Vogt came on as principal at the district’s elementary school in 2005.

“We had the possible threat of being closed several times in the past,” Vogt said, noting the idea was an effort to increase attendance and focus on the area’s rural background.

Thus, they developed a proposal to become a charter with an agriculture-based curriculum. With the federal government granting the charter in spring 2005, the Walton Rural Life School opened in August 2006. The school received roughly $345,000 over three years to develop the program.

Efforts have boosted enrollment, which grew from 80-plus in 2005 to more than 130 children in 2009. Attendance is lower this year because of the fifth grade now attending a new school in Newton, Vogt said. Meanwhile, youths are keeping a daily connection to agriculture centered on the core subjects.

For instance, this week second-graders are charged with gathering the eggs, as well as cleaning, graphing and measuring them in order to sell them to the public. Some classes are doing math activities with gourds. Third-graders do worm composting daily. Other activities include family-style meals where students learn how to set the table and table manners. On the menu one day is pulled pork, butchered from a hog the children raised last year. The Kansas Pork Association donates the hog and the butchering to help the youths learn how food goes from the field to the plate.

On Wednesday, a few classes will visit the family farm that the class has partnered with, this trip learning about milo harvest.

Other learning opportunities also help generate funds for the school. Some students are making granola to sell, while the fourth-grade class is building planter boxes. An ag camp during the summer has participants growing produce for a farmers market.

The school needs about $11,000 to $12,000 a year to pay for the ag programs. They raise most of that through these sales, as well as money donated by the city of Walton during its October fall festival.

According to the Newton school district, Walton students have scored well above the national and state average on assessments and have achieved Adequate Yearly Progress and state standards of excellence in all tested categories every year since receiving charter school status.

The Walton school has received the prestigious Governor’s Achievement Award for two consecutive years, ranking in the top 5 percent of all Kansas schools in academic achievement.

The professional film crew from Chicago, led by Joe Winston with Ow Myeye Productions, will do the filming. Winston also helped produce the film “What’s The Matter with Kansas?” based on the book by Thomas Frank.