The world has changed drastically in the last two months. And many of us are re-thinking the way things worked prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re wondering, “Do we want things to go back to the way they were?” “Was that working for us?” This has a team from Thetford thinking about what more is possible for our communities.

Joette Hayashigawa, retired Thetford Elementary School (TES) nurse and place-based education champion envisions TES as a place where all children feel valued and loved by what their surroundings do for them. “A lot of children come from difficult home lives,” she says, ”but if their school life, which takes up most of their day, provides good food, stimulating brainwork, fun, joyful, challenging things to do, and love and nurturing from their schoolmates and staff, this will make a huge difference in their outlook on life.”

Joette, along with school principal, Chance Lindsley, and farm to school coordinator, Cat Buxton, have been involved in a number of recent discussions aimed at how they can build on the incredible place-based education taking place at TES to provide an even more holistic and meaningful educational experience centered on building a thriving community. 

“When we think of building community,” says Chance, “we are really talking about the health and wellbeing of every individual within that community. TES is a school community where we are feeding children healthy food, nurturing their sense of belonging, and instilling a sense of responsibility for this place, whether it’s the people in it or the natural environment. Now, this pandemic is making us ask, ‘Is this enough?’ ‘What else is possible?’ ‘How could academic progress be deepened as our connections to the environment are enriched?’  And I imagine it’s possible that we could transform education to lead the change needed for environmental, social, and economic justice.” 

A Strong Foundation for Place-based Education

Joette recalls that when she was hired at TES 15 years ago, new federal guidelines tasked public schools to actively teach health and nutrition to students, with a focus on getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. “I did a little research on the subject and found that teaching about the nutritional value of eating healthy foods resulted in knowledge that could be captured on tests but did not alter eating habits whatsoever. I was trained as a nurse, not a teacher, but I did assume children would respond best to experiences lived through the five senses. It seemed that a school garden might be the most effective and joyful way to help children develop a better relationship with healthy food.”

Here are just a few of the place-based educational programs that Joette helped initiate while at TES. These programs relied on the support of the entire TES community, including Cat Buxton, Jim McCracken, teachers, students, parents, and the administration:

School Gardens- The extensive school gardens include 14 raised beds, apple, pear, and peach trees, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and a pumpkin patch. This growing season they are adding a Principal’s Garden and a Kitchen Garden in front of the school. The gardens provide hundreds of pounds of food for the school cafeteria and engaging hands-on classrooms for the students.

The Food Loop- The Food Loop is a closed-loop food program that follows food from the school garden to the lunchroom to the compost system and returns as compost to the school garden, where the cycle starts all over again. By the time students graduate from TES, they experience an entire food cycle and the importance of caring for the environment.  

Composting Program/Waste Stream Reduction- Over the years, TES managed to reduce its waste stream, including food scraps, by 70%, and won several awards, including the Governor’s Environmental Award. 

The TES compost system (operational for 10 years) is admittedly a high-maintenance program that in addition to daily operations requires constant adaptation to ever-changing aspects of school infrastructure and the cooperation of everyone in the building. It has served as a dynamic site for project-based learning and helps students learn real-world skills that address real-world problems (e.g. climate change) and the importance of hands-on labor. TES has also held countless workshops for other schools and organizations interested in developing composting at their institutions.

Milk Machine-Another important program is the school’s “milk machine”, purchased through a grant, which eliminates milk cartons. 

Outdoor Play- The gardens inspired TES to optimize the entire outdoor space in service to their vision for a school without “walls”. The playground was initially an uninspiring place. After third grade there was little for students to do at recess except for play team sports, which excluded many students and left them standing around, complaining of boredom. For socially isolated students, recess could be excruciating. 

TES formed a committee of committed parents. Their mission was to create a playground and community mini-park, designed to engage the five senses and offer lots of opportunities for students of every ability, including social, to find something engaging to do. They researched, did a lot of surveys, and planned for nearly a year and wrote grants. With parents doing nearly all the labor, they installed a giant outside chalkboard, bike pump track (with a fleet of school bikes) a zip line, climbing wall/mural, a group of outside musical instruments, an ice rink and landscaped the flat, barren playground structure area into a beautiful little park which the community also uses during non-school times. With children spread out doing so many different things, the number of playground fights dropped significantly. The graceful little park also produced a calming effect on students and staff and became a place where upper-grade students hung out during their recess times. The outdoor reading room, a veranda set in the middle of the courtyard gardens, has become a place for group reading, songs, yoga, and a shady cover for the hottest days.

Cat recalls that “among the benefits that I have seen from students are an improved and expanding palate for healthy foods; students taking initiative toward team building and leadership; increasing self-confidence in understanding the natural world and our place in it; a deepened understanding of human impacts on our environment and a deepened understanding of earth systems like how the sun works and how water moves through landscapes.”

Working Together 

Cat envisions tying together the farm to school activities they do to every curriculum subject, “providing a well rounded and connected educational experience that weaves to strengthen the social and emotional benefits of learning together in nature.”

She says that to do this we need, “continued grassroots leadership and administrative support. There needs to be a call from the supervisory union level to push for place-based education and to share widely the well-known benefits of connecting students to the natural world that provides for a thriving livelihood for all humans. We can build out student skill sets to enrich individual student livelihoods and meet the needs of the greater community as a whole.”

Chance thinks that “this type of transformation will call for superintendents, school boards, farmers, artists, and community members to support principals and teachers in taking the action steps.” 

To expand and deepen the work already being done,  Joette believes that, “The investment and commitment from school board leadership, the Orange East Supervisory Union, and other community stakeholders is vital. Personally, I think all the pieces are out there in the Thetford Community.”

Despite the terrible toll that this pandemic has taken on communities across the globe, it has brought people together in a way that many of us could only imagine a few months ago. It has underscored the incredible power of individual action towards a greater common good. 

Chance believes that “Our local schools are anchors in their communities. If we can come together with some imagination we can develop a roadmap for our schools to really embrace the important role they can play as hubs for environmental, social, and economic justice for all community members.”