NZ Farmer - Kumeroa School puts agriculture back into the classroom

With people becoming increasingly removed from the production processes that put food on their tables and milk in their glasses, a small school in Tararua is bringing agriculture back into the curriculum. Kate Taylor took a tour to find out more. 

From the gate, Kumeroa School looks just like any other small rural school.

There's a school sign at the turnoff and the carpark is the grass verge. The school's website says the school is located in the township of Kumeroa adjacent to the community hall, tennis club and church. That is the entire "township".

But the leaders of this rural Tararua school have chosen to use its rural character to its advantage… to the learning advantage of its students, says Steff Cresswell, who chairs the school's board of trustees.

Students tend to the school vegetable garden, collect worm juice from the worm farm and eggs from the school chickens from the coop and run designed and built by the students. There's a weta house in the trees and a greenhouse made from recycled plastic bottles. They are also involved with pest control at a local QEII National Trust covenant block, Awapikopiko, where the school also has a beehive.

Some students shoot and trap possums to pluck them for their fur or to win a prize at the school's Possum Hunt Gala.

There's a team of three going to the AgriKids grand final at the Young Farmer of the Year in Invercargill – Year 8s Lily McLeod and Lucy Allomes and Year 6 Jorja Fountaine – as well as three former Kumeroa students who competed in the regional TeenAg competition. The AgriKids team sold sunflowers on the side of the road to fund their travels, even giving a bunch to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Valentine's Day.

But it's the rural focus in the classroom that is their point of difference.

Kumeroa is about 10 minutes east of Woodville with the Manawatu River in between. While some students bus out from Woodville, most are from farms or lifestyle blocks around the district.

The school was known as Kumeroa-Hopelands School until a rebranding exercise last term. Kumeroa School amalgamated with Hopelands in 1994 when both schools were struggling to stay open and then merged with Kohinui School in 2008.

Threatened with closure by an education area review in 2009, the district rallied to save the school, Cresswell says. Almost a decade on, the school is still promoting its point of difference – its rural nature – and is using agriculture to guide its curriculum decisions.

Cresswell, whose family has a sheep and beef farm in the district, says the community is involved with the school every step of the way.

"We're always told there's no difference between an urban education and a rural education. None of us wanted to send our kids into town to school but we had to say why we were different. We said, 'Let's be the best we can be at being us rather than trying to just bring a town model to our school'. We want our children to know about agriculture so when they leave they see other communities through a rural lens.

"We also want them to know whatever they choose to do they can do it in agriculture. They don't have to be a farmer. We're showing them how to have understanding about living in a rural community. In agriculture you can do electronics, you can do computer programming, even journalism. You can do anything."

Dairy farmer and fellow board member Ben Allomes agrees.

"We're not training them to be farmers, we're training them to have an affinity with rural communities… that being small and local is okay and something to be proud of because not only do you have the connection with the modern technology through our high-speed broadband but also get out there and touch and feel and experience rural life. When they leave they will take with them an understanding of the value agriculture adds to the New Zealand economy. We hope they will have that mindset when they're looking at an issue or problem in the future."

Cresswell says adding the agriculture element to the curriculum has been an eye-opening experience with some children who learn differently, such as those with dyslexia or ADHD.

"We didn't always have the tools to help them so we reverted to what we know – kids learn by doing, they learn through what they know and agriculture is what we know, so we're working towards agriculture being permeated through every lesson plan so a child who is interested in mechanics or whatever can use that in maths or writing or whatever.

"They're not being told to sit down to do writing, they're doing something mechanical and then writing about it. It's flipping that traditional model."

"We're also talking about agriculture in its broadest sense," Allomes adds.

"The kids constructed a pizza oven because it's about celebrating the story of food, so they make pizza with the food they grow. It's not just cows and grass, it's food. It's sustainability. They work out how many eggs they have to sell to pay for the feed for the chickens. They sell their garlic and reinvest their money back into the garden.

"Those are real life equations."

Principal Caroline Transom says students identify, research, plan and learn through projects with close ties to agriculture and horticulture.

"Educationally, students with a sense of belonging, who see themselves reflected in their schools, achieve better. That's important and here we really do that. We bring their lives into the school so they can relate. The second thing is a lot of kids getting hands on and driving that learning.

"They're making choices and all of a sudden maths makes sense because they're using it to build something. All of a sudden they want to write because they're writing a report that goes with what they've built so someone else can use it. It just makes sense."

The school has teams for different areas of responsibility.

"We use the houses within the school so they do these things together across the age groups and the older ones mentor the younger ones. The students are in charge of looking after the chickens and fruit trees and worms and compost or the bees. It's their responsibility."

She says the agriculture focus has enabled the students to become involved with outside organisations as well. A pest control team spent a day at Pukaha Mt Bruce last year and one class is going on a trip to Feilding with Young Farmers to look at career options and all the different facets of farming."

Cresswell says it has been about creating easier learning for the students.

"We think about it as learning without barriers - the way you wanted to learn when you were a kid and then you got shut in a classroom and sat down.

"We've taken that sit-down-and-listen-to-the-teacher bit away – the aim of the flexible learning environment, the community involvement and the agriculture focus is for students to be able to learn without barriers."