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Monday, March 8, 2021

School on farm cultivates hands-on learning, student growth

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As the story goes, the teacher was not pleased when Mary showed up at school with her little lamb in tow. At one unique school on Indianapolis’ southeast side, that probably wouldn’t pose much of a problem.

Distelrath Farms is a private school started by Andrew Distelrath, who simply wanted something different for his daughters’ education.

“I’ve seen much of what our local community and much of what our country has to offer, and I knew that’s not what I wanted for my kids,” he said.

Challenging student-teacher ratios, limited measurements of students’ intelligence and a lack of practicality of many traditional school lessons are among the problems he saw in traditional schools.

So Distelrath opted to create his own school on his family’s farm and invite other children to join him. The main idea, he says, is to harness the natural joy and curiosity that children have and spin it into hands-on learning opportunities. For example, students learn fractions and mixed numbers by using tape measures rather than from a workbook.

For a recent history lesson, students learned about Henry Ford, assembly-line production and the Industrial Revolution while running their own assembly line to build birdhouses for the school’s fundraiser.

Distelrath also aims to individualize each student’s experiences based on their interests and aptitudes. 

“If the child has a particular aptitude for math and is interested in money, we’ll make sure a big part of what they’re doing is interacting with the finances of the farm and the school. They’re going to be in charge of tracking numbers, or playing a large role in it,” he said.

The hands-on and individualized aspects of the curriculum at Distelrath Farms is why Cortney Demetris enrolled her two daughters — Lanae, 10, and Nicole, 11. She says her girls don’t thrive in a traditional learning environment, but that’s not been the case at Distelrath.

“Nicole really struggles with learning things more traditional ways, like from reading books or lectures or worksheets. Since she started at the farm school, the things she retains … it has been striking. She’s learned significantly more in that short time,” Demetris said. “Lanae can learn in more traditional ways, but what I’ve seen with her is huge improvements in her work ethic.” 

Distelrath said Indiana’s guidelines for non-accredited private schools are lax, and by law he only has to take attendance and “provide education that is subjectively equal to or surpasses what (students would) get in the general education system.”

But he says it’s a double-edged sword.

“We’ve got this flexibility and this freedom, but we lose credibility. So we’ve got an uphill journey for awhile until we can prove success.”

He said if you ask his students what facts they’ve learned at school, they might not know how to answer, but ask them to walk you around the farm, and you’ll see the value.

“I don’t get offended at all when people challenge our credibility. They should. But if you’re going to challenge our credibility, you’d better be challenging your own school’s credibility. What are they teaching your kids? And why are they teaching it? How are they individualizing that educational path for your child?

“I am confident that a group of passionate educators working with a group of children in an appropriate ratio with limited restrictions is a recipe for success. Will it work perfectly every time? No. But as a betting man, that’s where I’ll put my money. And I am; I’m investing my life in this. This is for my kids.”

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