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CHICKENOLOGY: Maplewood-Richmond Heights students return to academic roosts

First published in the West End Word, May 24, 2013

By Eileen P. Duggan

Raising chickens plays a role in teaching students all aspects of sustainability. “If you had told me two years ago I would be a chickenologist, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said John Ahn, shown here with Natalie Mitten. Photo by Diana Linsley

Raising chickens plays a role in teaching students all aspects of sustainability. “If you had told me two years ago I would be a chickenologist, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said John Ahn, shown here with Natalie Mitten.
Photo by Diana Linsley

Four years ago, a small band of students in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District adopted a flock of chickens in order to learn about sustainability.

In the process, they and their successors became experts on raising chickens and have spread their knowledge through a book, a reference guide, government lobbying activities and local and national presentations.

The MRH Chickenologists recently presented a well-attended program on raising backyard chickens at the Maplewood Public Library, 7550 Lohmeyer Ave.

“Working with the chickens has taught me the power of one student to influence people, ” said sophomore John Ahn, a second-year chickenologist. “We’re trying to spread the program.”

Michael Dittrich, newly promoted principal of the Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School, oversees the MRH Chicken Project.

“It’s not just about giving students knowledge, but giving kids opportunities as well,” he said.

The project started with 14 chickens and one coop. There are now eight chickens (plus three recently hatched chicks) and two chicken coops, with another one in the development stage. The main coop, housed at the district’s Early Childhood Center, includes a coop large enough for several chickens, an attached fully fenced chicken run, a supply shed and a good-sized yard for free roaming.

The MRH Elementary School houses a second coop. A third, smaller coop, is planned for the middle school/high school grounds and it will more closely approximate a typical home coop, with a capacity of three to four chickens.

The new homestyle chicken coop is important as it will serve as a model for the chickenologists’ long-term goal: to support at least 50 families in the district who want to raise backyard chickens. The students aren’t sure how far along they are with that goal, but plan to do “chicken census” in the district.

Sustainability

Chickenology is one aspect of the district’s Sustainability Program. That program includes Seed to Table, the Blue Devil Bee Club, the Walking School Bus and “green” management of the buildings and grounds. Students in the sustainability group may participate in raising bees and making and marketing the honey; walking to school on designated pedestrian “bus routes;” and working in the raised garden beds that help feed the district’s healthy eating program.

“We grow our own cafeteria food,” said Ahn, who conduct the workshop at the library along with another chickenologist.

And, of course, they “hatch” their own chicken eggs. Rest assured, the MRH chickens will never be served as lunch in the school cafeteria or anywhere else, Ahn said. They are strictly for laying eggs — and fertilizing those garden beds.

Raising chickens plays a role in teaching students all aspects of sustainability.

“How can we use our chickens?” Dittrich said. “How do our chickens help our garden? All those are connected.”

That’s something Ahn has learned.

“I’ve learned more than I could imagine about systems thinking,” he said. “It goes so much further than chickens. It’s about tying these systems together.”

Outreach

This photo of a chicken graces the cover of Chickenology: The Art & Science of Keeping Chickens, by the MRH Chickenologists.

This photo of a chicken graces the cover of Chickenology: The Art & Science of Keeping Chickens, by the MRH Chickenologists.

One of the program’s educational goals is “to provide students with real world opportunities,” Dittrich said.

Making presentations came about as an opportunity to spread the program to the wider community.

“It advances the MRH image and the students’ opportunities,” he said.

The Chickenologists have made several local presentations and are open to opportunities to take their show on the road. Ahn recently gave a timed presentation in Tucson. The group was scheduled to present at the Green Schools National Conference in West Palm Beach in March, but a winter snowstorm caused cancellation of their flight.

“If you had told me two years ago I would be a chickenologist, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Ahn said. “I knew nothing about chickens or sustainability. I just recently learned about solar panels, which I never knew existed. These are things we were unfamiliar with.”

The seven original chickenologists, ranging from middle schoolers to high school seniors, did so much research on raising chickens, they decided to write a book about it. They self-published it on Blurb.com. The book is now used as an educator resource through the Expeditionary Learning network.

The students also have developed a fact sheet on chicken-raising, available for download from the district’s website.

In addition to their book, the MRH Chickenologists have their own website at http://mrhchickenology.weebly.com/. The site contains instructions on creating various types of chicken coops, advice on chicken health issues and other resources.

Two of the first-generation chickenologists, Curtis BoClair and Janai Robinson, still remain at school, lending their expertise to the next generation.

And it’s not just the older kids who learn and benefit from the Chicken Project. Elementary school classes take Chickenology 101, and the preschoolers can visit the chickens right next to their schoolyard daily.

In the early days of the program, three students served as paid stewards to care for the chickens on weekends and school holidays. Now that job is done on a volunteer basis by families of students of the Early Childhood Center. The families feed the chickens, clean the coop and replenish supplies a couple times a week. In return, they get to keep some eggs.

“It’s a family activity,” Dittrich said.

Even a neighboring business — not necessarily known for its homegrown, sustainable food — is getting into the act. Employees at the Maplewood Steak ’n Shake restaurant, located next door to the ECC on Manchester Road, keep an eye on the chicken orchard when school is out.

Chickenology: The Art & Science of Keeping Chickens, by the MRH Chickenologists, is available for purchase online at www.blurb.com/b/2070738-chickenology or from the district office. The book also is available for check-out at both the Maplewood and Richmond Heights public libraries, but be warned — there may be a waiting list. A Quick Reference Guide to chickenology can be downloaded from the MRHSD website at: www.mrhsd.org/programs/sustainability.

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