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Vermont Magazine: The Clean Slate School Nov/Dec 2003
Kindle Farm in southern Vermont gives at-risk youth a structured environment in which to learn responsibility and social skills - and to start over.
In southern Vermont, where, just last month, fields were ripe with the final harvest, where rivers wind through historic valleys, and where mountains beckon with steep trails, teachers and students join in a unique learning experience. The teachers are passionate about their work; the students are excited about what they are doing-and who they are becoming. The students who come to Kindle Farm have failed in traditional schools, and some come with sad and unpleasant histories. But you won't see this in their faces or hear it in their voices. For, at Kindle Farm, each slate is washed clean. In the field, river, mountain, and village classrooms, these kids start over. And gradually they turn their lives around.
The Kindle Farm School represents what Vermont holds most dear-the land and its people.
Timmy turned 15 just a week ago. He used to have a Mohawk, but his head is shaved clean now. In his long yellow T-shirt, on slender legs, and with arms flailing in unrestrained boyish glee, he runs and leaps joyfully between the rows of squash and tomatoes. He calls out to two visitors, comes smiling up to them, welcomes them, and greets them by their first names. He shakes their hands. His grip lasts several moments longer than one might expect. Timmy's enthusiastic chatter begins at once.
"I'm working over at the greenhouse with my teacher Sam," he says. "We've got new lettuce seedling to transplant today! Hal is planting some now. He's over there. See him? With his teacher Ashley! Come on! See what I'm doing! This will be the last planting for the fall crop. The cool weather is best for late lettuce, you know. And today is payday, too!" Timmy wipes a cascade of sweat from his forehead and face with his shirttail. (Names of students and certain identifying details have been changed to protect student confidentiality.-ed.)
A happy kid working on a farm? During the day, yes. But tonight, Timmy will go home to a state voucher-paid motel room and crowd in with his brothers and sisters and mother and father. The family has no plans for dinner. In fact, we will later learn the family simply has no plans at all. Timmy is one of the "at-risk" youngsters his public school district has sent to the Kindle Farm School, which is set in the forested hills and on the rich farmland of the West River Valley in southern Vermont.
Kindle Farm School (officially Kindle Farm Children's Services, Inc.) is an approved independent day school for at-risk boys from ages 8 to 19 at four permanent sites. The highly visible working farm is on Route 30 straddling the Townshend-Newfane border. The elementary and middle schools are housed in a building in Newfane next to the Newbrook Fire Station, and the high school is in classic Union Hall next to the Windham County Courthouse on the Newfane Green. A fourth school is in Saxtons River some 10 miles to the north.
The schools are in day session during the regular public-school year and in the summer, and offer educational, therapeutic, vocational, and recreational programs for students who have know physical or emotional trauma, drug abuse, petty crime, or other major disruptions in their life. They have a mix of academic, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
At lunch, and seated among his fellow students and looking even younger and smaller than his newly gained 15 years, Timmy told the visitors, "I've been here five years. Kindle Farm is my real world. I work here. I study here, and my best buddy Donny is here, right Donny? And if I have a problem, I see Eric. If I mess up, I have to work it out, but I can get a clean slate from Eric. You can't help but smile after you've talked to him."
So Timmy, enrolled in the summer program at the farm is but one among some 90 boys who come to Kindle Farm from five school districts in southern Vermont and four in New Hampshire. Under special-education law, these students are to be placed in "the least restrictive environment" for a chance to get their education when all else in regular public school has failed. For many of these students, this school is their last chance before residential treatment - or jail.
But here, in this one microcosm of childhood society, the prospects for such boys look promising. Eric Shearing, director of the school's farming program, and brought up on a dairy farm himself, says, "Our kids come from a variety of situations-dysfunctional families, truly abject poverty, violence in the home, physical abuse, some from really bad brushes with the law. Here they have to study, work, and learn, especially the social skills of good manners and how to handle frustration and anger."
"So many kids come to us with anger issues," said Ashley O'Neal, a horticulturist. She interrupted herself to give clear and sequential directions to two boys who where harvesting celery. "We'll work together on this row first. Carefully remove the big stalks that crowd the new ones, which need light and space. Put the big ones-the ones we are selling-here on this burlap. Push the soil back in around the smaller ones. They still have some growth in them. Like this. Okay?"
Anger-management skills are absolutely required here," said Bob Bursky, the burly, animated, and energized director. "Those directions Ashley just gave help prevent confusion. She didn't just say, 'Thin the celery.' She taught a sequence those boys can follow. If a kid's confused, you have frustration. Then stress. Stress unrelieved brings the explosion. And a kid will predictably throw something, howl profanities, or, at worst, hurt someone else or himself. And that's how most of them got into trouble. It's our mission to catch it early on, before it escalates."
"Here they can learn to process anger before they explode," Ashley continued. "and we have to teach them how - for those times when there's no one around to help. On a job, unprocessed anger means disaster. And these kids are all going to have jobs someday."
Some do already. In fact, the summer work at the farm is paid work, for there is income from the farm stand at the farm on Route 30 and from local stores and restaurants that buy fresh produce for resale or use. Two guests staying at the nearby Townshend Country Inn met two Kindle Farm students who were preparing a gourmet apple and cinnamon bread pudding with Chef Sean Yancey. One looked up from his decorating and said, "I am going to be a chef someday-just like Sean." Some boys have after-school and weekend jobs, many of which are cooperatively supervised by Kindle Farm staff and cooperating employers.
During the mid-90's, Bob Bursky was a special-education teacher at the Brattleboro Retreat in an in-patient setting for youngsters with behavioral or addiction problems. While there, Bob envisioned another kind of program, recalled from his days at the Neve Ur Kibbutz on the Jordan River in Israel. There, in his early twenties (in fact a self described "troubled kid"), Bob found meaning in the rigorous farm work, close mentoring, and strong community ties of kibbutzim life. He foresaw a place for at-risk youth where the student-teacher ration would be such that teachers could work closely as personal mentors with needy students. He say a non-residential program where these children could attend regular school classes and also be involved in strong vocational, educational, recreational, or music and arts programs. He saw a place where kids could become the successful, confident students and community members that perhaps they didn't dare dream they could become, instead of the alienated and often enraged youth they were.
There are crises at Kindle Farm. These are, after all, at-risk kids. On arrival in the morning, a student brings with him the boiling rage of a pre-dawn blow-up at home. "If that early morning anger gets out of control-and sometimes it does," said Bob, "our safety is endangered and then comes a chaos that sucks in everyone, souring the productive community spirit."
Then two, three, or maybe more teachers immediately build a safe space around the student. The teachers are not going to coddle or sympathize, not going to say, "Talk about it later when a counselor comes." Rather, they face the issue then and there, discuss the problem, and lead the student to find options in his behavior at once, so he can start the day's work. If options can't be found a plan can't be made and followed, there are immediate consequences: the afternoon program for that student, be it mountain biking, canoeing, or recording techno music at "The Loft" in Brattleboro, is put on hold.
But to Bob Bursky and the Kindle Farm School staff, these are "not troubled kids but rather kids who have troubles." And it is this concept -kids are people first- that is the philosophical premise at Kindle Farm. "We find their troubles and problems soon enough," Bob says, "but we start them with a clean slate."
"There is not another school like this in the state of Vermont," says Abigail Dillon, director of special education for Windham Central Supervisory Union - the local school district. "And don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
She continued, "It's all about building relationships. And by doing that successfully, Kindle Farm School has built an incredible community over there. For most kids it's the first time they've ever even had one. At last year's Christmas party a mother told me, "This is the first time I have ever come to a school event...and I am proud to, for now my son is flourishing.' One boy recently told me, "Here is where for the first time in my life I feel safe'. If done right, this kind of community experience can transcend the poverty, the abuse, the anger - and Bob Bursky and his staff do it right. And we heard the other day he just got the school's five-year license."
And at what financial cost to the school districts? "It's about $22,000 a year per student," Abigail Dillon replied. But a residential situation can easily run $65,000 and up."
When hearing of the school's tuition, Eris Howe, a West Townshend native whose family's roots in the town go back to 1770, said, "Only $22,000? Well, that's a bargain! Do you have any idea what jail costs?"
"Speaking of jail," Abigail continued. "Some of the boys worked at serving a benefit dinner for the school the other night. After dessert was served, they all came in from the kitchen, and lined up to enjoy the applause for their work. All I could think of as they stood there was this could very well have been a police line-up had it not been for Kindle Farm and Bob and his staff."
Bob Bursky describes the school's staff, which currently numbers about 60. "We have people with many skills and talents here," he says. "They all have different metaphors they use with the kids. They can translate their souls through their art, their carpentry, their athletics, and their medicine. Every kid has a chance to find some teacher who can speak to him. Metaphors get into the soul.
"We all wear different hats at different times. We all teach. We all have activity specialties, we all work on the budget, on business matters. It's important for each of us to have a natural fluency in everything we do and with everyone here. It's part of being community. And we all support one another. WE all tend to each others' ups and downs, staff and kids alike."
A staff ratio of one teacher to two students - and often one-to-one - ensures that each student is known, heard, understood, and taken seriously. Each student has someone he can turn to at once when even the smallest problem arises.
A basket of harvested cucumbers is suddenly too heavy.
"What are you going to do about it?" asks a teacher.
A thoughtful moment. "Get another basket?"
"Do you know where they are?"
"Then you know what to do."
At Kindle Farm School, there is no shuffle to get lost in, no cracks to fall through. There are only bonds to be strengthened. The slates are clean.