Home News and Features A Place to Grow: Spaulding Educational Alternatives

A Place to Grow: Spaulding Educational Alternatives

Making cheese at Spaulding Educational Alternatives. Photo by Stephen Kelley.
The two-and-a-half-story red barn is set on a hill off Allen Road in Barre, and dates from a time when “Farm to Table” wasn’t a slogan, it was a way of life. A few hundred feet down the hill is a new modern building: the home of Spaulding Educational Alternatives (SEA). It’s less than three years old, but the two structures are connected in more ways than one.

Spaulding Educational Alternatives is an alternative school within the Barre Unified Union School District, which provides project-based learning to all of its 50 students. Many of them have chosen to be part of Vermont’s Farm-to-School program. Like farm to table, it promotes connections with local farms, the use of local food sources, and an appreciation of where our food comes from. It’s all part of a national movement and, in Vermont, is officially known as the Farm-to-School and Early Childhood Initiative. 

Alyssa Pratt, a SEA student support specialist, describes the program as “a fantastic match for SEA. We not only have the space but we have the systems in place to provide project-based learning … it has been an awesome experience.”

Students who work with Farm-to-School learn to grow food, to cook with what they’ve grown, and to build structures, such as the almost-completed greenhouse. According to PE teacher Cooper Bushey, the school also hopes to renovate the old barn so it, too, can become a place for learning. All of their projects offer the high-schoolers a chance to apply the math, science, and literacy skills they acquire in the classroom.

A feature of SEA that Bushey notes strengthens Farm-to-School is the small student-to-teacher ratio “Every student has at least one or two adults they can go to with a problem,” Bushey says. The staff tends to share responsibilities. “It’s all hands on deck, here,” adds Bushey.

Both Bushey and school counselor Cristina Sharnberg suggest that building relationships has to be a priority at SEA if their students are going to be successful both at school and later in life. A document on Sharnberg’s office wall notes that she is now to be called “Mrs. Popcorn.” Sharnberg smiles, “The kids made up special names for all of us and I like to make popcorn.” 

On Tuesday, Oct. 24, SEA celebrated the school’s participation in Farm-to-School. Visitors, including education leaders and Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Anson Tebbets, gathered to acknowledge the work of students and their teachers. Betsy Rosenbluth, Farm-to-School director, noted that 81% of Vermont schools now have gardens. Secretary Tebbets shared information about grants available to interested schools and to those already involved.

Staff member Jen Hutchinson invited everyone to try foods prepared by the students using school-grown tomatoes, cheese, and student-baked bread. 

Hutchinson shared a memory of the day she and five of her students made the cheese, beginning with curds (also student made). 

“We were all crammed in together. The music was on and things were groovin’. I heard the kids saying, ‘This is so much fun.’”

She stopped for a minute, fighting back tears, and said, “That was the best day … in my whole career!”