Fiona Wilbur, 11, a 5th grader at Freeport’s Mast Landing School, feeds Snuggles, an Oberhasli goat, a medicinal treatment of powdered zinc and molasses at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment Monday. The center’s Farm Discovery School is a 12-week program for kids at Mast Landing and Morse Street schools who only attend in-person classes for part of the week due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

A partnership between Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment and Regional School Unit 5 is offering Freeport schoolchildren educational opportunities and a return to routine that the coronavirus pandemic has denied for more than a year.

Farm Discovery School started in the fall of 2020 and resumed last week for its 12-week spring session, catering to kids from Mast Landing and Morse Street schools. It started, according to Molly Cyr, the center’s farm camps manager and the program’s coordinator, because of the pandemic restrictions that impacted teaching and learning.

“I knew that schools were having a difficult time figuring out what to do with their students,” Cyr said.

Cyr said the center has run farm camp programs for years, but those were smaller operations akin to a one-off field trip experience, as opposed to a full-fledged instructional offering.

“We knew this was definitely more of an educational program,” she said.

Educator Kaiti Davis on Monday shows schoolchildren from Freeport’s Morse Street School how shadows move with the sun to indicate the passage of time. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

Students at both schools are using a hybrid learning system. On their remote learning days, students had half of their days free. Now they can spend their half days on the farm, with the end result being that they attend school a full five days a week, said Emily Grimm, principal at Mast Landing and the parent of a student at Morse Street.

On Monday, a total of about 40 kids arrived in busloads from each school for the morning, with another group of 40 kids was expected in the afternoon.

Inside a barn, the fifth graders worked with livestock, including sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and calves. The kids do basic chores, such as feeding and watering the animals, gathering eggs and administering medicine.

The program revolves around five key categories: animal husbandry, fruit and vegetables, outdoor survival, woods and water ecology and research. Groups alternate working with the program’s eight instructors throughout the day, Cyr said.

A group of Morse Street School kids Monday learned how to read a map, use a compass and use shadows from the sun to indicate the passage of time.

Bennett Deangelo, 11, a 5th grader at Freeport’s Mast Landing School, cradles a chicken while helping to collect eggs at Wolfe’s Neck Center Monday. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

One of the program’s educators, Adrienne Carmack, said she will be taking a group of kids later to nearby Casco Bay for lessons in water ecology. The subject matter can be complex, she said, but the kids are responding well.

“They pick it up pretty easy, I think,” she said.

The key, Carmack said, is plenty of hands-on instruction, which keeps the kids occupied.

“We do as much as we can to try to keep them moving and doing tactile things,” she said.

Bennett Deangelo, 11, has learned how to handle a chicken.

“If you go over their wings it keeps them from flying away or kicking you,”  Deangelo said, while cradling a chicken in his arms.

Nearby, Fiona Wilbur, 11, was preparing a medicinal feeding for the farm’s two Oberhasli goats. They don’t get enough zinc in their diet, she explained, so she coated a flat feeding stick with molasses, then dipped it into a bag of the powdered mineral, all while one of the goats, named “Snuggles,” watched with great interest.

When asked why Wilbur liked the task so much, she said, matter-of-factly, “Cuz they’re goats!”

The program will run through June 4, paid for by federal CARES Act funding, Cyr said, but she hopes that even after the pandemic ends that the center will be able to secure grant funding to keep the program going. A shorter version of the program could be made available to kids from schools in multiple communities, she said, and even be adapted for high school students.

“I think that’s our hope, and I think the schools have seen the value of this,” she said.

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