Young students invited to get their hands dirty at Acacia’s Farm School
DENTON, Md. — With lunch wrapping up at Acacia’s Farm School, an agriculture-focused private school, Brian Tyler, along with the other teachers, stays closely attuned to the couple dozen students buzzing around the property.
“You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel at this point,” he said. “There’s a lot going on right now.”
It’s the kind of energy the school staffers want to see in the students as they resume their instruction which on this particular day involves planting three vegetable plots on the farm.
The school’s goal is to teach and cultivate through inquiry, discovery and project-based learning the skills needed to achieve a better sense of one’s self through agriculture.
“I love when learning is student-driven. It’s their questioning,” said Tyler, the school’s education director. “It’s undefined in that we create whatever’s next. We have the agriculture curriculum but we’re honing the wheel.”
Based on Kent Island, the school’s roots go back to 2016 when Amelia Foxwell founded the McCardle School, an early learning program for children with autism. That quickly expanded into the Sweet Bay Magnolia Academy which offers child therapy services and child care and Acacia’s Farm School emerging from that as a Maryland State Department of Education approved K-3 private school program.
Foxwell said the school’s farming model stems from planting activities they students did during field trips.
“The kids have always had a huge reaction to it and it had a huge impact,” she said.
Through Caroline County farmer, Matt Jones, a friend of Foxwell’s, the school leased a farm near Denton, built a barn for its rescued animals and is planting and caring for several vegetable plots.
They converted a farm house on the property into classrooms they hope to use beginning this summer for its camps.
Students have been coming to the farm since the fall, after in-person learning resumed.
Foxwell said the school’s roots attracted students who performed better outside of a traditional classroom and creating the farm is an extension of “building intrinsic value about school.”
“The kids that it’s worked for has absolutely changed their lives,” she said.
Through the week, the school’s 47 students spend the mornings in math and reading small groups and in the afternoons work on individual ag projects or take agricultural lessons from the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, National Ag in the Classroom program and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for science and social studies learning. Tyler and Michelle Conner, the school’s reading specialist and ag mentor also took MAEF’s “Infusing Agriculture in the Elementary Classroom” course to help prepare lessons.
“We’ve done so many of MAEF’s activities at the school,” Conner said. “I love the ag infusion course. I just think it’s what the world needs.
“Running a non-traditional classroom is tough but having these resources at our fingertips is something I’m grateful for.”
Tyler said using agriculture-based lessons gives them a lot of flexibility to cover multiple subjects.
“We can hit every single component of the curriculum” with agriculture, Tyler said. “Everything that is required of traditional seated book learning, we can achieve.”
Beyond the learning opportunities, Tyler added students become aware of the many career fields that exist in agriculture.
“It opened my eyes a whole lot more to what’s available,” he said.
The individual ag projects take students on a year-long journey that involves growing or using an agricultural product in a business setting.
In its first year, Tyler said many students teamed up in pairs to take on a project, and the Kindergartners took on their chicken and egg project as a class.
Edward Mullarkey chose to make strawberry popsicles for his project.
He and friends picked 10 pounds of strawberries at Godfrey’s Farm in Sudlersville, Md., and he’s partnering with Tasty Toucan, an ice cream shop in Kent Island to process them into popsicles he’ll then sell at the Kent Island Farmers’ Market.
“I just thought with summertime it would be a big hit,” he said.
Second graders Acacia Foxwell, Amelia Foxwell’s daughter and the farm’s namesake, and Paddy McArdle chose a project related to bees. They are partnering with a local beekeeper to learn about bees and then taking beeswax to make and sell lip balm, soap and candles.
They said they picked the project because it would challenge them.
“I thought it would be the toughest job and the funnest job,” McArdle said.
“I had a huge fear of bees and I just decided I’m going to overcome it,” Acacia said.
Amelia Foxwell said the long-term ag project gives the students something to take ownership of while learning core curriculum lessons.
“The effort they put into it produces something,” she said. “I think the key thing is the ownership and the connectivity to the ag community.”
This fall, Foxwell said they are building a greenhouse at their Kent Island site to accommodate ag lessons during winter months and Conner said they are working to start a 4-H club to extend learning in agriculture and project work.
The staff and students are also excited about a trio of micro-miniature beef cows arriving soon to the farm to go with its chickens, ducks, goats and pig.
As for long-term plans for the school, Tyler and Conner said they hope it attracts more students and that the farm can grow to where a farm stand, managed by the students, can start.
“I would love to see this farm include more kids who wouldn’t have this opportunity,” Conner said. “I’d like to see 100 kids out here learning and growing.”
Foxwell said she hopes to the program grows as well, enough to start multiple schools that can maintain its mission for individual learning.
“I would like to open several,” she said. “I never want it to get big. Once you get big a lot of things get lost.”