Inside Tsawwassen’s former Boundary Beach Elementary School, a few teenagers on laptops sat in empty desks and wayward chairs once populated by chattering primary students. One student looked through images of anime, a worksheet on the characteristics of living things near her elbow.
Outside, in what used to be a grassy dog park, more teenagers are working in the rain, their rubber boots inches deep in mud as they plant melons in a ploughed field. Over a pile of wood chips, neat rows of spinach, broccoli, cabbage and leeks could be seen. On the other side of the fence, bees buzzed quietly around three hives.
Decommissioned in 2007, Boundary Beach Elementary had sat empty or been leased to outside groups for nearly a decade. Now, it’s the home of Delta’s newest mini school.
Farm Roots started in September 2017 with a novel concept: Grade 10 to 12 students could spend every other day learning social studies, science and business, while creating a sustainable farm. In many ways similar to Delta’s academies — a program geared towards a particular activity or subject — Farm Roots is free for students to attend and has a strong grassroots feel.
“We don’t have a bell schedule here,” Tammy Veltkamp, one of the teachers in the program, said. “It’s very flexible and fluid, and what happens every day really is different. You sort of take it as it comes.”
Technically part of Delta Secondary School in Ladner, Farm Roots is taught and organized by two DSS teachers: science instructor Veltkamp and socials studies teacher Graham Harkley.
Neither one had experience farming before they started the program, although Harkley had grown up gardening. But both saw this as an opportunity to do something different and teach students about their subjects in a more tangible way.
“In the classroom, it’s great to do acid/base labs with chemicals,” Veltkamp said. “But they can’t always make the connection to what are you going to do [these labs] with.
“Here we’re doing acid/base labs with the soil. And it just makes it … really applicable.”
Brooklyn Jenkins, a Grade 11 Cloverdale student in the program, found that to be one of the most useful parts of the mini school.
“I’m doing a lot better in my socials and science,” she said. “Last year — I don’t know what I learned last year. But this year I remember all the different science and socials things I learned.”
Jenkins now knows how bacteria and viruses can affect a farm. She has a better understanding of how plants grow, and how they’re put together. She can remember important events in the history of farming.
According to a release put out by the Delta School District, the average science and social studies grades for students in the Farm Roots program has increase by 10 to 15 per cent.
“It’s not an easy way out,” Jenkins said. “You still have to do school work — it is a school. It’s not just a place for fun and games.”
It’s especially not easy for Jenkins. Farm Roots operates on the Delta School District’s two-day rotation, meaning every other day students take a different schedule of courses. Jenkins attends Regent Christian Academy in Cloverdale, which operates on a 10-day rotation.
“Basically I get a lot of study blocks,” she said. “Whenever I go to school and there’s science or socials, instead of me going to that class I’d catch up on, say, the math block I missed.”
It might make schoolwork a little more difficult, but for someone who has difficulties sitting still and has farming in their blood — like Jenkins does — the time spent outside makes it worthwhile.
On June 15, outside wasn’t an inviting place to be. Muddy water filled the ditches between plant beds, and the half-acre field was misted in chill rain. But students were happy to be outside, dirt making its way under their fingernails as they planted cucumbers, dug holes for bulb flowers and raked up mounds of dirt for watermelons.
At the start of the year the property was just an empty field. The students had to remove blackberry bushes, build fences and plough the area.
“Originally, I imagined having the whole eight acres ploughed and doing something with it,” Harkley said.
“We’ve kind of figured out what’s manageable,” Veltkamp added.
Over the summer, the Farm Roots field will be managed by two interns, hired through the Canada Summer Jobs program. Some students from the mini school are planning to volunteer with the farm over the summer.
In addition to the weeding, watering and harvesting that goes along with maintaining the farm, the interns will also be engaged in selling the farm’s produce to the community. Hopefully, in the fall, the students will be able to keep up the harvest and handle fall crops such as pumpkins.
This past year, Farm Roots had 20 students in the program. There are already 28 signed up for next year, including five from North Delta’s Sands Secondary and 12 who took part in the mini school this year.
“It almost seems like we have an extra curricular program overlapping on top of an academic program,” Veltkamp said. “So trying to get that all to mesh and knit well is a lot.”
“It’s been a big learning curve,” Harkley added.
But it’s not one the people in the program are willing to give up — especially Jenkins, who’s returning to the program for her Grade 12 year.
“We put so much work into the field, and our raised beds we made. And we have actual crops growing from seeds,” she said.
“I’ve never been able to do that even though I go farm” at the family farm in Prince George, she continued. “I’m never there … for very long so you don’t see them grow up.”