by Katie Navarra
Rain or shine, blazing sun or blistering cold, students rise at 6:30 a.m. and report to an assigned chore rotation. “Sometimes in the middle of winter when it’s 40 below they are all bundled up, goggles and all,” Mike Tholen, Farm Manager at the school said.
Over the course of a 33 week school year, 90 students enrolled in grades 4-8 at the North Country School in Lake Placid study the “3 R’s”, reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as music and art. While learning the skills essential for success, North Country School students learn to appreciate agriculture and where/how the food they consume is produced.
Chores are an integral part of the students’ daily activities. “(The founders of the school) decided kids needed to get in touch with where their food comes from and to become stewards of the earth,” Tholen said.
In the 75 years since its inception, North Country School has continued to incorporate agriculture as an important part of its mission.
Managing and caring for several types of livestock. Students feed, water, move fences for grazing pastures, and clean barns for the school’s horses, hogs, dairy goats, sheep and poultry. “We raise 16 hogs per year for meat, 42 sheep and between 500-1,000 birds for laying and meat,” Tholen said.
Students not only care for the livestock, they are also involved with harvesting them. “Wednesdays we have a Quaker style town meeting. Before chicken harvest we spend a lot of time talking about it, talking about a reverence for the animal’s life,” he explained, “it is a challenge by choice, so if a student does not want to participate they can be assigned an alternative job.”
Vegetable production is equally important. During planting season, the entire school is involved in planting. “The whole school went out and planted potatoes,” Tholen noted.
Every Monday morning, all spring long, students are busy planting successions of lettuce, chard and kale. “Each succession has 180 green and 180 red lettuce, 90 chard and 90 kale plants,” he said, “using a 100 foot unheated hoop house we had greens all months of the year, except February, this year.”
By the end of the growing season, the school harvests 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of potatoes that are incorporated into meals for the students. The farm also produces nearly 4,000 pounds of squash.
Fulltime students leave North Country School for summer break in early June. Their chores are then handled by summer campers enrolled in Camp Treetops, the school’s predecessor. Summer campers arrive in time to take over planting, maintenance and harvesting. Summer campers pick-up caring for the livestock and on any given day are out moving fencing for the grazing sheep and hogs.
History of North Country School
North Country School was created in 1938 by Leonora and Walter Clark. The Clarks spent several years working at the camp during the time when Leonora’s sister, Helen Haskell, was serving as co-director with her husband, Douglas.
Leonora and Walter, both educators, envisioned a school that would extend Camp Treetops’ ideals to classroom learning. The school opened with six students and four adults. Today, the school hosts a total of 90 students — the majority are boarding students, though day students from the local area are enrolled as well.
Camp Treetops, the forerunner to the North Country School, was founded in 1920, Donald Slesinger on 200 acres of land in Lake Placid, NY. During a time when camps were segregated by sex, race and religion, Camp Treetops hosted campers from diverse backgrounds. Camping sessions last seven weeks and keep campers a host of outdoor activities, which caring for the livestock and produce is an integral part.
Students hail from diverse backgrounds. “We have a lot of legacy students-second and third generation students here. Some students are from families like the Rockefellers and Chases, or have parents working as diplomats for the UN,” Tholen said, “we also have students from Harlem whose mom works three jobs just to make ends meet.”
For more information about North Country School or Camp Treetops visit www.nct.org or call 518-523-9329.
by Katie Navarra