The principal of Walton's elementary school told an audience at Bethel College about school kids who learn measurements from feeding sheep and calves and multiples of 12 from sorting the eggs laid by chickens.

Natise Vogt, principal of Walton Rural Life Center, talked about the school Wedenesday to an audience at Bethel's Krehbiel Auditorium. Vogt's presentation was part of the college's Life Enrichment program.

Vogt talked about a school with a barn, vegetable garden, green house and chicken coop, a school where students can explain the difference between a windmill and a wind turbine (the former produces water; the latter, electricity) and where a classroom project might include building their own incubator from a styrofoam box.

"Our second graders can tell you it takes 12 hours of sunlight for a chicken to hatch an egg," Vogt told the audience.

There are 187 students presently attending the agricultural-themed charter school. Children are getting put on the school's waiting list almost as soon as they are conceived. However eight years ago when Vogt became principal, the school was facing declining enrollment and the threat of being closed like so many other rural schools.

Vogt recalled then USD 373 superintendent John Morton suggested changing to a charter school format as a way of increasing enrollment. She was open to that possibility, but Morton's idea of taking on an agricultural theme took some getting used to.

"I explained to him, I'm a city girl. I cry when I see a dead squirrel on the street," she said.

When all the teachers at the school responded enthusiastically to the agricultural theme, Vogt pursued it. It took a lot of research on the part of Vogt and her staff, but now agriculture is incorporated into school at all levels in all academic areas - math, science, reading, writing.

Students engage in project-based learning, testing theories and finding answers to questions through experimentation.

"The teacher is not the giver or person who imparts knowledge," Vogt said. "She's more of a facilitator."

Sometimes a project does not go the way students were expecting and they have to start over, but Vogt said that is part of the problem solving process.

"Failure is not a problem," she said. "It's a learning experience."

After her presentation, an audience member asked Vogt if there is any tracking of Walton students when they transition to a more conventional school.

Vogt said middle school teachers tell her, "You can always tell a Walton student because they're excited about learning and they're respectful."

The teachers at Walton have gained a renewed appreciation for learning, Vogt said, and Vogt, who previously knew nothing more about farm life than how to bail hay, said: "I have learned to love every minute of it."