Go into the woods, young man
A Vermont alternative school taps into native American survival skills to help boys focus and gain confidence
NEWFANE, VT. — Patience was not exactly Andy Earle's strong suit. When he started attending the Kindle Farm School five years ago, staying focused on anything for 15 minutes was a struggle. He was so frustrated in his public school classes that he'd unleash profanities, and his teachers often made him leave the room.
Now a high school senior, Andy has been able to stick with his schoolwork without medication for the past three years. Just a few weeks ago, he had another one of those moments when perseverance pays off: After many attempts, he made a fire without matches.
These basic life skills - patience, communication, managing anger, and problem-solving - are central to Kindle Farm's mission.
The academics required by the state are covered as well, but one day a week, students trek to the woods just up the hill from one of the school buildings for a wilderness program. Engaging their senses in this natural setting, teachers say, sparks an interest in learning and builds confidence among young people who haven't had much of either.
The other four days of the week include morning classes and afternoon activities ranging from bike repair to snowboarding.
Founder Bob Bursky started the alternative school seven years ago with just three students, and he added the wilderness lessons on the suggestion of a teacher. The all-boys school has since grown to 80 students in Grades 3-12.
The boys come to the independent school because their area public schools are at a loss as to how to educate them. About 95 percent of the students here fall under the label of "special education," and the others have been diagnosed with a similar range of problems - learning disabilities, emotional troubles, attention-deficit disorder. The students' school districts pay their tuition.
"By the time we consider Kindle Farm, we've tried everything we can and we need to start thinking outside the box," says Daniel Lafleur, special services coordinator for several school districts in nearby southern New Hampshire. In the spectrum of services, Kindle Farm's day program, with one teacher for every two students, is the last stop before a student would be sent to a live-in facility for treatment. The $23,000 yearly tuition is at least three times the amount districts in New Hampshire spend on a typical public school student. But residential treatment starts at $60,000 and can rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars. By some estimates, alternative schools educate about 200,000 students a year - or 5 percent of the young people who leave the traditional K-12 system. As at Kindle Farm, graduates of these programs often take jobs rather than go to college.
On a recent Monday, the high-schoolers at Kindle Farm cut saplings to build a native American-style shelter. Two weeks after Andy's first successful fire, the group again started one by spinning a stick on a piece of wood until it created a smoldering dust and ignited a loose ball of tinder.
On these wilderness days, teachers also slip in academic lessons. Percentages come in handy when they talk about the sustainable harvesting of wild crops - take only 80 percent, so the remaining 20 percent can regenerate.
"In public school they throw work at you," Andy says. "There's 20 kids sitting in a class ... with one teacher. And you can't learn like that." Here, though, Andy is so taken with the program that he says he'd like to become a naturalist.
His classmate Devin Whitman had a similar disdain for school. When he arrived at Kindle Farm at age 11, he didn't trust anyone, says Mr. Bursky, the school's executive director. Devin began to build relationships as he busied his hands with tasks such as hollowing a cup out of a piece of wood with a burning coal. Now a senior, he's described as having an incredible work ethic and an interest in world politics.
Kindle Farm is a "godsend," says Abby Dillon, director of special education for the school district that includes Newfane and nine other towns in southern Vermont. Just under the region's idyllic surface, she says, are concerns about violence, drugs, and alcohol.
Kindle Farm, she says, gives students a chance to be productive in class instead of spending time in the principal's office or being suspended.
"It's allowed us to keep a majority of our kids [with special needs] in our community," she says.