This student’s statement is representative of many of the hundreds of students who found success at Kindle Farm School, a division of Health Care & Rehabilitation Services (HCRS).
Kindle Farm opened its doors in 1996 in Newfane, Vermont as an after-school program for seven boys who were struggling in school. It now has an enrollment of more than 50 students in grades 2 to 12. In addition to academics and therapeutic supports, Kindle Farm offers a modern culinary program, organic farming, maple sugaring, and a logging certification program as well as an extended school year, farm-based summer program.
Students attend Kindle Farm who have diagnosed disabilities and are significantly behind in at least one of several academic areas, and only after the sending school has tried a variety of interventions that, despite their best efforts, did not work to meet the student’s needs. Thus, students often enter Kindle Farm feeling like a failure, not seeing themselves as capable learners, distrusting adults, and seeing schools as a traumatic experience.
According to J.J., a charismatic 5th grader with significant emotional intelligence, “When I first got here, I was the most nervous person in the world. The first few weeks, I was struggling hard, but a few months later I was crushing it!” The great thing is, J.J. is right. By the end of his first year, J.J. had vastly improved.
Kindle Farm’s daily structure allows for smooth transitions, relationship building, and ensuring students are prepared to learn. Morning classes are followed by a two-hour block in the afternoon that focuses on therapeutic activities and skill-building electives.
Throughout Kindle Farm’s history, between 75-90% of its student population live at or below the poverty line, and there is significant evidence that poverty is highly associated with Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are defined as traumatic events occurring before age 18. ACEs include all types of abuse and neglect, as well as substance abuse, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence.
Such cumulative exposure to ACEs causes stress that behaves as a toxin in the developing brain of a child. In the absence of protective factors, this toxic stress can change a child’s neural architecture.
From its inception, Kindle Farm has offered many protective factors for its students. First, the school provides close relationships with competent, caring adults through its 3:1 student to staff ratio.
A second protective factor that Kindle Farm engenders is cultivating a sense of purpose. Students are called upon to use their skills and aptitudes and to contribute in meaningful ways. This is imperative, as being a recognized and celebrated individual repairs self-esteem and creates the possibility for struggling students to see themselves as able learners.
Social connections are fostered during the more than 30 activities offered in the community every week. Kindle Farm students can be seen deejaying at the local radio station, lifting weights at the local gym, making T-shirts at a local screen-printing shop, or volunteering at the Humane Society.
Drew Gradinger, Kindle Farm Director, states, “We thrust our students into our local environs, and they blossom quickly into engaged community members and see the value of human capital.”
The stigma that many of the student feel is ameliorated by the pride they take in the school’s facilities and grounds. Many classes at Kindle Farm are run on a 100-acre organic farm with apple and pear trees, a maple sugar shack, and gardens galore.
Finally, Kindle Farm’s rich programming allows for opportunities not afforded to many rural students: experiences at local ski resorts, fitness centers, and more allow students to gain valuable social skills and see themselves in these social contexts.
The brain’s “plasticity” and ability to regenerate new neural networks are being fostered by the school’s culture. A culture low in toxic stress creates the possibility for the brain to change and for new development, including skill acquisition, to happen.
When a student is successful at Kindle Farm, the change can be remarkable. Many students return to their sending school and take advantage of being in their local school community.
When D.J., a former student, came to Kindle Farm, he had been struggling in mainstream environments, felt misunderstood, and had mistrust from prior school situations. In less than two years, D.J. developed the required skills to be safe and engaged in the program and started to see himself maturing beyond Kindle Farm supports. He developed the goal of becoming an independent student and asked for a transition to a local charter school, where he is now successfully maintaining his newfound skills and is a confident and independent student.
Some students who graduate from Kindle Farm have gone on to do internships in Costa Rica, others have gone to technical schools or college, and almost all alumni look back at Kindle Farm as a pivotal turning point in their lives.
Gradinger states, “Success looks different for all students, and we hope that the social, emotional, and academic teaching we deliver allows our alumni to develop their best selves and achieve their goals, hopes, and dreams.”
George Karabakakis, Ph.D., HCRS CEO, states, “It is a remarkable experience to attend a Kindle Farm graduation and see how these young men have entered into a world of confidence with a sense of mastery from their educational accomplishments.”
The school has evolved over its 24-year history, having served thousands of students in over 15 school districts across Vermont and New Hampshire. Gradinger concludes, “It is a privilege for all of us at Kindle Farm to do this good work, and we will always believe our motto, that Every Kid Deserves a Chance.”
About HCRS Founded in 1967, Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont is a non-profit, community mental health agency serving Vermonters in Windham and Windsor counties. HCRS serves over 4,000 individuals every year through its mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities programs. The agency provides holistic care for clients, supporting them with employment, housing, transportation, and other social service needs. Visit www.hcrs.org for more information.