Penn Farm serves as classroom
NEW CASTLE, Del. — As the school year wraps up this week at William Penn High School, activity on its nearby Penn Farm, is in full swing, extending the learning environment for many students.
Though about a dozen high school students are continuing to work on the farm through a New Castle County summer employment program, during the school year, the farm has become part of many aspects of the high school and its Colonial School District both in and out of its agricultural programs.
The district’s Penn Farm roots go back to 2003 when some a few small plots of vegetables were created and managed by students in the plant science program. That jumped to three acres in 2012 as a capstone project for students in the Agriculture Degree Program and also led to a $100,000 USDA grant to expand further with equipment, tools and training. In 2016, the district’s Nutrition Services department hired Toby Hagerott as it’s Farm to School manager to work with teachers and staff on using the farm and the food it produces efficiently.
Paula Angelucci, Colonial’s Nutritions Services supervisor, said creating the farm manager position in her budget was a crucial part in the farm’s growth.
“You’ve got a farm, the teachers need to teach, so who does all the other stuff,” she said. “I’m used to going out on a limb for something I believe in. For students, I’m willing to take that risk.”
Total production on the farm doubled from 2016 to 2017 and use of the farm’s food in school meals has resulted in more meals served, Scott Schuster, Nutrition Services outreach specialist said.
Penn Farm has increased to seven acres of the 112-acre Historic Penn Farm, part of an original 1,000 acres set aside by colonist William Penn for use by the county’s citizens. Squash, lettuce, cucumbers and sweet potatoes are some of main crops, but Hagerott added garlic this year and in the spring, 40 fruit trees were planted including nectarine, apricot, plum, apples and figs. One acre is in hay production and one acre is devoted to pollinator habitat. With grant funding, they’ve also added a teaching garden and a demonstration honeybee colony for education.
“We’ve got a lot going on in a little spot,” said Hagerott.
On the school’s campus, just around the block from Penn Farm, small greenhouses grow transplants for the farm and house an aquaculture project; a chicken coop and pens of goats sit in the shadow of the school’s football field’s bleachers.
“This my 30-something year and to see a chicken coop next to a football stadium is really something,” Angelucci said.
Hagerott said about half of the nearly 20,000 pounds of food grown on the farm is used by Nutrition Services in the district’s cafeterias and half is sold through a CSA program and at a local farmers market with the revenue going to support the farm’s program.
The school’s agriculture program includes plant science, animal science and environmental science, all of which use the farm on a regular basis, but so many other programs have had a hand in making the farm an integral part of school life.
Phlebotomy students use the goats in honing their blood taking skills; culinary arts instructors take student to the farm during their summer kid’s camp to educate them on how food is raised and culinary students use food grown on the farm to prepare meals at the school’s bistro which serves faculty and staff.
A graphic design student designed the exterior of the farm’s pickup truck used for delivering food to school cafeterias; students studying construction and computer design worked on the farm’s tool shed and chicken coop and the list goes on, Angelucci and Hagerott said.
“At some point most of all of the students are exposed to the farm,” Hagerott said. “We’re trying to cross-collaborate as much as we can. That’s how things happen in the real world.”
Hagerott added there has been discussion to establish a cross country running course around the Penn Farm fields for more exposure and the possibility of adding a high tunnel greenhouse to the school’s farm, aiming for year-round production, particularly lettuce which is in tremendous demand by cafeterias district-wide.
Beyond serving school cafeterias, other students get to visit the farm though field trips in the spring.
Schuster said about 300 elementary students came to Penn Farm on field trips last year and this year all the available spots filled up in three days with about 500 students visiting the farm.
“There’s a huge interest for them to be able to get out to the farm,” Schuster said. “We definitely met our goal.” Schuster added there has been interest from other school districts to schedule field trips to Penn Farm.
Penn Farm Days events are held for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students in spring and fall which allows them to meet high school teachers and learn more about the school’s programs.
For students after high school, a farm apprenticeship program was created for those interested in starting their own farm or getting more farming experience and Future Harvest CASA has designated Penn Farm as one of it’s training sites for beginning farmers.
Going forward, Angelucci said they want to continue looking for volunteers from the community to help some on the farm and help students learn.
“That’s a piece that we’re really trying to get more exposure too,” she said. “You have people out there who have experience that could help.”
Making so much use of the farm is part of the school’s goal of promoting “authentic learning” and engaging students beyond the walls of the traditional classroom, Dr. Brian Erskine, William Penn principal said.
“Penn Farm has allowed us to do that,” Erskine said. “It’s kids doing all the work and that’s important. I look at it as more learning experience for living.”
Angelucci said having staff and teachers committed to making the farm useful across disciplines is a huge part of its success.
“Communication, communication, communication. Important anywhere, it’s critical for us” she said. “We are, I feel, unique because of the people who work together. We were very fortunate to have Penn Farm right next to us, but we’re very fortunate to have the people we’re working with. It’s total education at its best.”
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