Turlock farm school makes sure kids apply what they learn

TURLOCK — In this barn-turned-classroom, a stuffed wild boar is the class pet. And when the goats escape their pen, the students get extra hours of PE chasing them down.

"Our school is definitely not a normal school," said 14-year-old Tiffany Sozinho, who wakes up at 5 a.m. to first do chores at her family's dairy. "I've been to a normal school, and they don't make it as exciting."

Known as School in the Valley, the sixth- through eighth-grade program began in 2004. It operated as its own charter school for two years before becoming part of the Keyes to Learning Charter School, where students spend Tuesdays and Thursdays learning history, English, science and math in a more traditional classroom setting in Keyes.

But on the other days on a farm west of Turlock, the 20 students start their day shoveling hay, collecting eggs from the henhouse and giving a haircut to a rabbit nicknamed "Boom Shakalaka."

Applying what is learned

Teachers say the agriculture-focused approach to learning math and science shows students how their textbook knowledge applies to the real world.

"I think it develops something deep inside them, whether they know it now or not," said teacher Diane Sugerman. "Hopefully, when they are adults, they will have a better understanding and empathy with the environment."

The farm is owned by veterinarian Rob Santos.

"I've never been so close to animals for so long," said Gabriel Bartle, 14, who admitted the smell of fresh manure took a little getting used to.

After the students took a math quiz and gave oral reports on different birds and their habitats, it was out to the garden to water and weed.

"I like to taste the food, the different experiments you can do," said aspiring chef Tristan Jones, 12, as he pulled away weeds choking a garlic plant.

On Wednesday, the students tended to the fruit tree orchard they planted last month. They covered the planted saplings -- including apple, pear, fig, peach, cherry, plum and apricots -- with a coat of thinned paint to prevent sunburn. The teachers hope to sell the fruit once the saplings mature, in about three years.

"We're learning about farmers and agriculture, what's happening with the bee and salmon (die off)," said Victoria Gonzalez, 12.

"I feel like we're all a piece of the world now."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.