The Orchard School: A School Growing Food and Community

Sunflowers give way to the view of the Orchard School from the CSA Garden.

Case Study 5

The Orchard School sits on a hill that faces the local bakery, Orchard Hill Breadworks and abuts the Orchard Hill Community.   A playground with raised bed gardens is connected to rows of beautiful, green vegetables that are sold through the Orchard Hill Village Roots CSA.

During the school year, young students wander through these beds asking questions to the attending gardeners.  There is a pond just over the hill where campers can take a dip on a hot summer day after learning about growing, harvesting and cooking a fresh, garden meal. The opportunities for learning at Orchard Hill are abundant, the scenery is beautiful, and the various on-site businesses resonate with the vision to provide holistic education for all ages.  This is what makes the Orchard School Community, with its roots firmly planted in farming and food cultivation, unique and worth experiencing.

Project Beginnings

In 1990, The Orchard School and Community Center was founded by three friends, Eleanor Elbers, Kathy Torrey, and Kathleen Vetter, who shared a vision for a community place of gathering, growing and learning. They joined resources and for three years held preschool classes in a teacher’s home. The demand for childcare made it clear that the community needed the school, and the school needed a home for its increasing numbers of students.

The Elbers Farm in Alstead became the chosen site as it had been the nexus of a farm/village community since 1971.Over the course of that year, the school’s leadership and responsibility were shared by a core group of parents, community members, teachers and their spouses. This spirit of goodwill and cooperation formed the most important foundation for the school.

Children harvested peaches for a week straight using their favorite sandbox dump trucks. Good thinking!

Marty Castriotta, Facilities Director at Orchard Hill, explains his sentiments,  “We have strong intentions and values and we try to instill a sense of place and appreciation of agriculture.  The school was built in 1994 and has had gardening integrated into the school in some capacity since the beginning—it was an organic connection since the school is located on a multi-generational farm.””

As Facility Director, Marty maintains the buildings and grounds with an eye towards energy efficiency and health. He is also the environmental educator, leading after-school programs and farm-based fieldtrips.  During the summer, he is also the Counselor Coordinator for Orchard Hill’s farm and forest camps.

Up and Running

The focus of the Orchard School goes beyond outdoor education to create a village culture.  The mission is to be an accessible place of learning that nurtures:

  • a sense of community
  • respect for individual differences
  • the land
  • lifelong learning
  • a connection between the cultural life of our rural community and that of the world beyond.

Teachers embrace each student and share with them a sense of connectedness with the surrounding physical and cultural environment.  Although they are a private school they see themselves integrating into the larger community through communication, sharing, and trading resources.

The Orchard School Preschool and Kindergarten classes use the Community land (farm, orchard, bakery) and raised beds outside the school house for learning opportunities year round.  The variety of spaces teachers are able to utilize provide for many organic learning opportunities.  Marty  Castriotta explained that often he will be working in the garden and kids will spontaneously come up and ask questions.  These interactions are at the heart of the Orchard School.

Beyond this they also make use of curriculum such as Digging Deeper, Stella Nutura-Biodynamic Farm Calendar, Project WET, and Project WILD. They often draw upon the concept that a farm is a living organism and observe how every element within the farm is connected.  Storytelling is an important technique used such as selections from “The Mountain Stands Alone.”

Summer day camps enliven The Orchard School from late June until the middle of August.  One week in the summer is designated “Farm Camp”  where children directly participate in the happenings of the farm.  They take part in more of the farm activities and play games that build understanding.

Orchard School’s after-school program, Farmers and Foragers, provides a nurturing home away from home for children ages 10-15 and focuses on local foods. Students visit other farms and stores to learn about the diversity of our food system.   Activities include maple syrup gathering, beekeeping, building portable pig pens, cider making, building a composting toilet, and other activities.

The Orchard School also serves the surrounding community by welcoming other schools to their site for field trips and serves as a Community Center through the workshops and classes offered there to adults. Planning for the school started in earnest in February 1994 with a volunteer effort to erect a 2,500 square-foot building. The following summer, over 275 people from near and far contributed more than 3,000 volunteer hours, and by September The Orchard School opened its doors.

Hurdles to Overcome

The success of The Orchard School is a great model for other school communities looking to innovate and integrate.  Of course, with success comes challenge and the Orchard School still faces some hurdles ahead.

Hurdles for the School:

  • Funding:  The annual fund drive is essential with  parents of students and campers, employees, neighbors, and other community members donating money every year.  Grant awards are another piece of the funding equation.
  • Visioning:  Keeping track of the school’s intention as it grows and develops new programs and staff.
  • Networking: They would like to better understand which schools in the area would like a garden, farm curriculum for the classroom, or come for a farm visit.

Hurdles for the Farm:

  • Regulations: The orchard once sold apple cider until it became illegal with NH’s pasteurization law.
  • Raising capital: More money is needed to grow more food.

Plans for the Future

There are many ideas yet to be developed:

  • Marty Castriotta is working with Stacy Oshkello of Cold Pond Community Land Trust (see Toolkit pages) to develop a  school based program based on nutrition education and food preparation.
  • Promote field trip opportunities for all ages.
  • Develop a stronger after school program.  They are currently working with the Latch-Key Program of Alstead to provide opportunities from 2-5:30pm for kids up to 11 years of age.

Advice for Other Schools/Projects

For other school interested in starting similar food and agriculture programming, Marty offers the following advice:

  • Get a sense of the place where you are – connect to stories of the local people and land.
  • Make connections with local farms.
  • BE ADAPTABLE- educate people about the way things change day to day, season to season, and year to year.
  • Work collaboratively in a non-competitive fashion with other organizations with similar goals.
  • SHARE!

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