For five students RSU 12 might otherwise have placed outside the district in a specialized program, the ABLE program for grades five through eight at Whitefield Elementary School is providing engaging, hands-on education that is helping students achieve academic standards.
The ABLE program, formerly known as Autism Behavior Learning Education, has been informally renamed in Whitefield. The program, which provides structured education for students with autism or behavioral or emotional challenges, is now referred to as the Aquaponics-Based Learning Environment.
Students, with the support of their teachers, are tackling core academic disciplines through the construction of a hand-built aquaponics system, an agricultural system where aquatic life, such as fish, supports the cultivation of hydroponically grown plants, or plants grown in water.
Lead teacher Sally Allen, education technician James Willigar, and student Ethan Tillson presented the work of the ABLE program to the RSU 12 Board of Directors at the board’s meeting Thursday, Jan. 14. The aquaponics program is providing educational support to students RSU 12 might otherwise have had to place outside the district, Allen said.
“The ultimate goal is an alternative education program for middle school students who can’t learn the way we expect students to learn,” Allen said. The development of the aquaponics project as part of the ABLE program was “a very fortunate and happy accident,” she said.
Willigar was recently hired at Whitefield Elementary School as an education technician, and entered his new role with a background in agricultural education for students with disabilities. Allen was interested in introducing hands-on learning activities for students in the ABLE program.
Tillson, an eighth-grader, provided RSU 12 board members an overview of the development of the aquaponics system. Since April, when the ABLE program began its agricultural projects, students in the program have grown tomatoes in a hydroponic window garden system, grown lettuce in a hydroponic system made out of a kiddie pool, constructed raised beds for soil crops, helped construct a greenhouse at the school, and are putting the final touches on an indoor aquaponics system.
Once the greenhouse is complete, the aquaponics system will be housed in it, Willigar said. The system is experimenting with starter fish, but the school has applied for a license to use tilapia in the aquaponics system.
The agricultural projects are providing an alternative pathway to learning for students who do not function well in a traditional learning environment, Allen said. Through the projects, students in the ABLE program learn science, technology, engineering, and math.
“We’re really excited to bring hands-on education back to public schools,” Whitefield Elementary School Principal Josh McNaughton said. “It’s flourishing.”
The work of the ABLE program is a source of excitement for the school, with the younger grades eager for tours and explanations of the system, Willigar said. The aquaponics system has also seen an outpouring of community support.
“Whitefield is an agricultural community,” McNaughton said. “This gets us back to the roots of our community.”
Since the agricultural projects launched in April 2015, Allen and Willigar have raised $10,000 in grants. Backyard Farms, a Madison-based company that grows hydroponic tomatoes, and Fluid Farms, of Dresden, Maine’s first aquaponics company, are supporting the program.
The greenhouse was constructed through an outpouring of support and volunteerism from the community, Allen said.
Sheepscot General Store and Farm in Whitefield has also been a tremendous source of support, Allen said. The ABLE program plans to distribute its crops to area food pantries and sell produce at Sheepscot General in the spring.
The store is especially excited about the ABLE program’s future lettuce crop, with lettuce in high demand and short supply, Willigar said.
The aquaponics system and agricultural projects developed quickly, Allen said, and the program is still working to demonstrate core curriculum standards are being met through the physical construction and cultivation of agricultural systems, Allen said.
Allen said she hopes Whitefield Elementary School becomes a magnet for other students in need of an alternative pathway to learning. “We want schools to send their kids to us,” Allen said. “We want to build the program up.”
RSU 12 board member Joan Morin choked up when congratulating Allen, Willigar, and Tillson for their work.
“This is very impressive,” Morin said. “I applaud you. This is how a number of our kids learn. This is what we have to do. We should be integrating life into every subject.”
Tillson has served as a spokesman for the ABLE program’s agricultural projects, leading tours of the aquaponics system for younger students and speaking to community groups.
Tillson said he has learned a great deal from the program. “Mostly (I learned) if you put your mind to it you can do anything,” Tillson said.