SHREWSBURY — Seventeen kindergartners and first-graders eagerly scurried into the snowy banks behind Shrewsbury Mountain School to their special “sit” places for quiet time last Thursday.
“They all have a spot that they choose at the beginning of the year,” said Julia Bonafine, leader of the outdoor classroom and k-2 teacher. “They sit and observe, and watch the seasons change, and get to know that spot really well.”
For 15 silent minutes, the children gazed into the trees from their respective snowy perches. Then, Bonafine raised a small medicine drum to summon them back to their huddle around a glowing fire, where they sipped lemon balm tea made with herbs from their garden.
“Let’s talk about what we see, what we think and what we wonder,” Bonafine said.
As part of the Mill River Unified Union School District’s Trailhead 2020, officials at Shrewsbury Mountain School decided to specialize in sustainability, teaching their 71 students the rippling impact of choice.
“Shrewsbury is a really positive, collective, interconnected community,” said Principal Jodie Ruck. “We want to teach the students how to be better stewards of our environment, and our community basics for understanding all of these larger systems.”
The little school is hidden away on a long, winding road into the mountains, away from the bustle of Rutland. Students build their own wooden forts and plant evergreen trees along the banks of the school grounds where they noticed the earth beginning to erode.
“We want them to be global change makers,” Ruck said. “But one of the keys to that is having them fall in love with where they are. ... It’s called place-based education.”
Though Shrewsbury Mountain School has always had an underlying ecological mission, Trailhead 2020 has brought together their respective environmental projects with the community garden and local farmers under one umbrella, Ruck said.
“They’re going to have to be involved citizens,” Ruck said. “They’ll need to be problem solvers. Those are the qualities we’re helping kids develop with this kind of work. They’re going to face a world that’s so much different than the one we’re in now.”
This year, the school launched a collaboration with Shelburne Farms, which will help the school design a rain garden and teach them about water conservation.
And, though the students have been harvesting food from the community garden for years, the school launched Harvest of the Month in the fall, highlighting one special fruit or vegetable the students in kindergarten through fourth grade can pick themselves. Students learn about the nutrients, ways to cook it, and share the delicious results with their peers.
“October was chard,” Ruck said. “They used the leaf to make quiche and made maple syrup, vinegar, sriracha pickles out of the stems ... then they came to the school board meeting and let the board members try it.”
Ruck said her staff say they hope to do more educational training at Shelburne Farms and began work with a group of volunteers, parents and other community members once a month to create a local resource database for the area’s various farms and businesses to help develop the school into a community-based educational center.
The school is already establishing partnerships with the town conservation commission and historical society, and will be surveyed to create a second outdoor classroom, affording students more time for wilderness-based education.
“If the kids aren’t learning inside, we try to keep them as active as possible,” Ruck said. “We wanted to figure out how can we make school epic, how can we give our students, regardless of any other factor, any of the things that kids in private school have. We want to make it a place kids are excited to go to. And make adults want to do it over again.”
When it’s time to be quiet, not a sound can be heard in the halls, as each student has curled up with a Dorothy Canfield Fisher book or a laptop in cushioned chairs, underneath desks or in a favorite corner.
The students in Sabrina McDonough’s fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms are entering their third year raising trout to release into local watersheds, and are reading “A World Without Fish” to better understand how to preserve their local freshwater sources.
“We’re hoping to do a baseline so we can look at the health of the streams over time,” McDonough said.
Erin Rice’s kindergarten, first- and second-grade English Language Arts classes are tying ecology into their reading in their “Thirsty Planet” series about water conservation.
“It helps them do their part and make a difference,” Rice said. “If they feel engaged in what they’re doing, and they feel it’s important, and they have a hand in that, they’re willing learners. They’ll soak up anything you’re willing to teach them.”
“It’s part of space-based learning,” Ruck added. “It’s the interconnection — connecting all of the subjects to the things we already know. ... It’s students doing hands-on activities and being able to work at individualized levels lends itself to students receiving what they need, when they need it.”
“I like learning about things that have happened in the past,” said 9-year-old Cabot Spatz. “I want to be somebody who helps with problems in the world.”
In her first year, Ruck said their strategy to fully implement Trailhead 2020 is evaluating resources and reaching within for support.
“Part of sustainability is realizing you have what you need,” Ruck said. “I have amazing teachers and an involved community. What I want is more access to scientific instruments, training for teachers and finances for field work, but I have everything I need.”