LANGLEY — Over the course of an hour, the three sisters, their friend and their dad cleared out and deconstructed an entire bean tunnel — chicken wire, hog panel, T-posts, bamboo poles and all.
Under the watchful eyes of their teacher Jean Cravy and school farm manager Cary Peterson, the South Whidbey School District students dismantled the big structure one piece at a time, not long after a late October frost rendered the long, thin fortex bean pods swollen, inedible — but still compostable.
Their giggles filled the crisp air. After months of learning on a computer, they were happy to be working outside, together, on the district’s own half-acre farm.
As Washington’s school districts try to figure out how to break up the seemingly endless stretch of online learning while keeping students and communities safe from COVID-19, outdoor learning seems like a natural solution. But so far, few districts have successfully moved lessons outside.
While there are some pockets of success — South Whidbey, Colville, Whatcom County — other districts have gotten a slow start. In Seattle, School Board members approved an August plan to explore outdoor classes, but so far, none of the five proposals have launched.
The state superintendent’s office has certainly encouraged outdoor learning. “Getting kids outside for learning and teachers could result in less spread of the virus,” said Elizabeth Schmitz, who heads the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Environmental and Sustainability Education Program. And research suggests learning in nature leads to gains in other academic subjects, as well as stress relief and even better vision.
Districts where agriculture already plays an important economic and cultural role have an advantage. South Whidbey is one of them: Six years ago, it turned an unused sports field into a school farm.
Starting up an outdoor learning program is hard, said Kathryn Kurtz, executive director of the Pacific Education Institute, a group that teaches educators how to teach outside. Many are intimidated by moving outdoors. “They won’t have as much control over the kids or aren’t sure what to do — it’s not a comfortable place for them,” she said. “Most people like the idea and understand the value … but it takes time to implement.”
Still, districts — even those that don’t have their own farms — can learn from South Whidbey how to safely use the outdoors to keep students connected to their land, their learning, and their peers.
On the first Monday of November — just before Election Day — the farm felt a long way from the thrum of the outside world, with spiders’ silk gleaming in the sun atop the black irrigation tubing that had been used to water a corn circle.
Annie Wheat, 11, a sixth grader decked out in a pink jumper over a lavender shirt and purple leggings, plucked a blade of grass from the ground as she talked about what the garden has meant to her.
“When you’re on the computer, you’re just clicking boxes and watching videos. When you’re outside in any environmental place, you can really touch things. It’s like, it’s new stuff,” she said, her voice soaring, her friends listening intently. “The computer is just this old piece of thing.”
Through a wide smile, Cravy ribbed Annie for the critique: “Come on guys, I do try to make my assignments a little more than that.”
Annie twirled the grass around her finger, thumbing carefully at its tiny green ridges: “There are so many fibers in a single string of grass.”
The farm as a classroom
South Whidbey’s farm has had many uses. It feeds students some of their regular lunches. It’s part of a contextual curriculum that teaches students about the forest, the farm and the Salish Sea all around them.
A few other districts also use agriculture to educate. In Wahluke, a district on the Columbia River 61 miles east of Yakima, some life skills and special education students gather in a learning garden, aided by a heated greenhouse.
Students struggling in other areas come to life in the garden, sustainability coordinator Derek Hunsaker said, because they were already learning about it at home: many of their parents work in agriculture, and their multigenerational housing often involves garden work. In Wahluke last year, nearly 97 percent of students enrolled were Latino; less than 1 percent were Native American/Alaska Native.
For advice on how to tend the land, Wahluke educators turned to local Yakama Nation members. Their teaching: replant native plants, and take care of the river. The district is working on clearing a space of invasive species and replacing it with sage, rabbit brush and native grasses.
In South Whidbey, ever since the pandemic tore its way through Washington, the farm has taken on added importance. When schools first shut down, the district trained paraeducators — whose in-person jobs would have suddenly ceased to exist — to tend to the crops, which were included in the free food provided to families and food banks.
“Farmer Cary,” the school farm manager, made videos to keep the kids engaged. She, AmeriCorps volunteers and paraeducators made sure kids were able to pick up plant starts from the school. Administrators used the farm supporters to fundraise the cost of an outdoor classroom, a roofed structure without walls.
The farm is one tool the district is using in its effort to attract families who might not otherwise be there; many South Whidbey families are moving to private schools or home schooling, and others have moved away as home prices rise. When Susie Richards, South Whidbey Elementary School K-4’s principal, was a teacher in the district around 13 years ago, there were about 1,700 kids, she said. Now, there are 1,200. About 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — not a high number, but big enough to create an economic divide, she said.
This school year, the district created the SWAP Program, a district-supported partnership that gives parents more agency in their children’s learning. In SWAP, teachers design lessons; parents take the lead on delivering them.
“In spite of COVID, we realized public school has to do a better job providing options for families,” Richards said.
The farm is also helping to get kids back into face-to-face learning. At first, administrators brought back kindergartners, younger students with disabilities; families and pods enrolled in SWAP and the South Whidbey Academy, another program that leans on family engagement, were able to get in-person time on the farm.
South Whidbey recently expanded access to 150 students struggling the most with online learning. “We start with the idea of students who are furthest from educational equity,” Richards said.
Even with outdoor learning, teachers must account for COVID-19 safety, resulting in an intricate and ever-changing web of scheduling and course configurations. Jay Freundlich, who started working as the district’s farm teacher, worked throughout the summer with staff and AmeriCorps volunteers to figure it out.
Groups can’t be larger than 10. Students are largely masked. Everyone enters through four color-coded gates — but only after they attest that they haven’t had a fever or any other COVID-like symptoms.
“The children were SO excited to be at school,” Richards said Tuesday.
And, to her delight, the kids didn’t have any issues wearing masks or social distancing.
Making a connection
To demolish a bean tunnel, you start at the top. First, the sixth graders and the father cleared the vines from the twine. Then, they balled up the orange twine, their fingers twisting and twirling.
“Everything must go!” Peterson hollered. “Say goodbye to the bean tunnel.”
And then, the heavy lifting. Peterson uses this part to teach about fulcrums. Using a giant red levered object called a post puller, they lifted the tall metal T-posts from the ground. “It’s a finger masher, be careful!” Peterson warned.
Fourth grader Dailee Franks first tried, but it didn’t quite lift. With some teamwork and more pointers from Peterson, finally, the post puller leveraged the T-post, pulling it up and out of the soil.
“You don’t really realize it when you’re just picking up the beans, tying up the strings,” sixth grader Annie said. “You look over and it’s like you did all that in one hour. It’s meditative, you’re calm.”
Adelynn Franks, a sixth grade student, said she begins to identify with the plants after enough time outside. “You know how the plants are all connected at their roots?” she said. “I feel more connected like the plants when I’m in the garden, to people.”
While this group was doing unstructured farm work, they were still learning. “It’s almost stealth education,” Peterson said.
As the girls worked at the tunnel, Cravy and Freundlich talked about creating more explicit lessons tied to the farm. They started Friday, looking at winter plantings and plant propagation.
Farm education “has become increasingly important to me because of the disconnect in our culture between people and our food,” Freundlich said. “I have looked for every possibility to get kids onto the farm.”
Instead, he was able to bring the farm into students’ homes throughout the closure, teaching them how to grow microgreens and use them in simple recipes.
Path that led to farming
So how did a small school district come into possession of a farm?
Peterson moved to Whidbey in 1989. She’s been a freshwater biologist, a bicycle racer on the U.S. national team and a land caretaker.
In 2013, she started negotiating a protocol that would eventually allow the farm to supply Chartwells — the district’s food services company — school lunches, so that students would be eating food grown yards away from their classes. At the same time, with the district’s blessing, Peterson marshaled volunteers and the support of the Goosefoot Community Fund to turn the space into a farm.
“It became an integrated special area just like PE or art or music,” said superintendent Josephine Moccia. “Students are down here at least once a week.”
Before COVID-19, there were about 600 kids a week working on the farm. In the spring, they’d grow overwintering kale and broccoli and carrots, spinach, lettuce and peas. In the fall, warm weather crops, like cucumbers, basil, ground cherries and tomatoes — timed to peak when kids return to school.
It’s a myth, Peterson said, that kids don’t like vegetables. “Kids love vital things with life force that are delicious,” she said. “It changed their whole relationship with food.”
At least according to one farm class, she’s right.
After the elementary school kids cleared the scarlet runner beans, it was time for dessert: carrots. In a segment educators called “garden nibbles,” students followed Peterson to a bed of carrots at the edge of the farm. She took a shovel, loosened the soil, and let the kids take it from there. (There are also “garden tacos,” where they roll up tomatoes and other veggies in a leaf of kale.)
One by one, the kids knelt on the ground, uprooting the veggies by following the leaf stem to their nubby shoulders and pulling.
Carrying their bounty by their long green tops, they walked to the outdoor washing station, wiping off the grime and soil, gasping as the cold water hit their hands.
They stood in a circle, raising their tasty treasures high.