Ag seen as saviour of rural Alta. school

ROUND HILL, Alta. — Families, students and community members are counting on agriculture to save their rural school.

They’re counting on chickens, cows, gardening and dozens of other agricultural projects to build enthusiasm needed to stop their school from being closed.

Round Hill School is one of just four schools in the Battle River School Division proposed to be closed or amalgamated. The school board will vote March 19 to decide if the school should be closed and the students bussed to other schools in the area, or if it should remain open.

Instead of accepting the board’s decision to close their small school without a fight, the community wants agriculture to be the centre of the school and its reason for survival.

“We want to make them an offer they can’t refuse. We want willing, embraceful partners. We want them to be as enthusiastic as we are,” said Kyle Nahirniak, project manager of the Round Hill Renaissance Agriculture program.

The plan is to have a student-led farm with a 4-H-type calf project and a community garden, to hatch eggs and raise the chickens on grass, to slaughter some of the beef and chicken and to host community and school celebrations.

“We are looking to youth to inspire them to get into agriculture because of the enormous potential of the industry and of the stability of the industry,” said Nahirniak, who is in the middle of calving 220 cows on his nearby farm.

Nahirniak went to school at Round Hill School, as did his father. His oldest child is starting kindergarten at the school and he wants to see the school continue.

Nicola Irving, also on the committee to save the school, said she doubts her family would have moved to their Round Hill farm a dozen years ago without the school. Their family needed to be within an hour of Edmonton for their local food business and the school was key to choosing Round Hill.

“I came because there was a school less than a mile away and a kid starting kindergarten,” said Irving.

It’s not the first time the school has been threatened with closure. It came close in 2000 but the community rallied and the facility got a reprieve.

“This time we’re not just rallying to save the school, but to become a big benchmark in the division,” said Irving.

If the group can convince the school division to allow the community group to offer the agriculture program, the school will be a magnet for more families, they said. Now, about 86 students attend the kindergarten to Grade 9 school. Nahirniak estimates the changes may attract the roughly 50 students within 10 kilometres of Round Hill who are either homeschooled or go to the Catholic school division.

The agriculture program is based on a similar school-based, student-led farm at the Altario School in central Alberta. Faced with dwindling enrolment, the school turned its focus to agriculture as a way to thrive, not just survive.

Like Altario, a student-run farm at Round Hill would see the children feeding the animals each day and working in the garden, with the partnership of the local service clubs, farmers and community members.

The group has proposed a business plan with an advisory team for each project to ensure its initial success.

“The key to this is financial self sufficiency,” he said.

In addition to growing projects, Irving will lead modules in direct marketing and local food production. Northlands, the agricultural society in Edmonton, has agreed to work with the school. All the agriculture projects would be linked with the school curriculum.

“Nothing can happen without the support of the division and the teachers. We want to put together something they can instantly integrate,” said Nahirniak.

The group envisions field trips from larger area schools to see their student-led farm projects. Now, their students are bussed to Camrose for courses like welding, but the reverse could also work and students from larger centres could be bussed to Round Hill to study agriculture.

Irving said they could also offer part of the high school Green Certificate program, a high school agriculture apprenticeship program.

“I don’t see the limits,” she said.

Faced with budget cuts, the Battle River School division said it needs to find $4 million and closing the underused schools would help balance their budget.

“We recognize there are many aspects to the decision of closing a school. As a rural school division, we want to be supportive of rural areas. But we also recognize that rural communities have fewer people than they used to have. Fewer students means fewer dollars. Our primary focus must be on ensuring we can provide quality educational programs for all students. We cannot make decisions based on the number of buildings we want to operate,” said a note on the division website.

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