WALTON, Kan. — The door to a hen house burst open on a chilly winter day and several south-central Kansas charter school students scrambled inside, squealing "Thank you!" to the chickens as they checked for eggs and replenished their grain.
It's a morning ritual at Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center, whose focus on agriculture saved it from closing. The school now attracts a steady stream of visitors from around the country who watch students learn through projects that range from selling eggs to showing pigs at the county fair.
The farm curriculum, although still relatively unusual, has been replicated in other Kansas schools and proven successful in more urban environments, including Chicago and Philadelphia.
"Kids love it," said Walton Principal Natise Vogt, adding that the students fight over cleaning up the animals' droppings. "That's one of the things that's important to us. We want kids to enjoy school. We want them to be happy and want to come to school, and that's what the hands-on learning does."
Located in a farming community of 235 people, the Walton school had barely 80 students when the school district decided to transform the kindergarten to fourth-grade building into an agriculture-focused charter school. Since making the switch in 2007, enrollment has grown to 183 students.
Only about 10 percent of the students at the school about 30 miles north of Wichita live on farms. But all of the kids beg to give Freckles the calf his bottle and Eeyore the donkey his breakfast ration.