Charter school inspires with agriculture program

Nancy Tarnai
Classes are in full swing at Effie Kokrine Charter School by now and frost has nipped the garden several times, but for students in the summer agriculture program, the memories of learning to grow fresh food will linger long past the first freeze.

The program was established at “Effie,” as the school is affectionately called, to give students an opportunity to earn high school science credits. Agriculture instructor Avril Wiers said she began working with students in April to plant seeds and by June the garden was planted. The middle and high school students were not limited to attending any one school, and there was a homeschooler and a girl from Arizona who was visiting her grandmother for the summer thrown into the mix.

Photo by Nancy Tarnai
Avril Wiers works in the Effie Kokrine Charter School garden in August.

The program was broken into two four-week sessions, with students attending four hours a day. Each week Wiers covered a different topic, from farm management to the science and business side of farming. “We worked on how to price things, created business plans, studied nutrition, food groups, portion control, taxonomy and water.” Wiers said.

The food science component involved making raspberry jam, while the livestock lessons focused on sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens.

Not only did the students listen to lectures and do assigned reading, they worked in the one-acre garden and after harvesting crops sold them at the Downtown Market. The money raised at the market goes back into the program.

“It was awesome,” Wiers said. “We had so much fun out there. It was cool to see the kids engage from the classroom to the garden. It was agriculture applied to nutrition, food systems and leadership.”

Amazingly, all the students finished the program with A’s or B’s.

Sue McCullough, Effie’s early college site coordinator, said this new program fits right in with the national emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. “This is a skill that once you learn it you can always fall back on it,” she said. “You learn the value of food.”

The Effie garden produced beets, carrots, lettuce, beans, peas, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers and more. “The tomatoes didn’t do so well,” Wiers said. She emphasized organic methods “as a gateway to healthy living.”

Wiers, who is working on a master’s degree in outdoor and environmental education at Alaska Pacific University, found the summer job much to her liking. “I wanted kids to get outside and experience nature,” she said. “It’s so sad that kids sit in front of a TV and eat candy bars. I wanted to help teach them good stewardship.” The curriculum she developed for the class is part of her master’s thesis.

Also, it was a fun experience. When the group took breaks they played tag or took short hikes.

Wiers was pleased that at the beginning of the session, the students often dined at fast food restaurants, but by the end they were making salads with ingredients from the garden for lunch. “All they needed was a little push and encouragement,” Wiers said. One day they made moose meat spaghetti with vegetables they had grown and everyone in the building joined them for the meal.

Wiers also noted that the students entered vegetables in the Tanana Valley State Fair and walked away with three first-place ribbons.

One downer for Wiers is that there is a great need to improve conditions in the garden. “Our soil is horrible,” she said. “It is sandy and silty. We need to compost and up the organic part.” She also hopes to someday have a barn for animals.

“We had great support from the school district,” Wiers said. “I would love to see this at other schools. It fits the natural resources technology program.”

The goal is to eventually integrate the agriculture component into the school’s curriculum year around. There is already discussion about creating a hydroponic setup to grow food for the school lunches. “I would like to see vegetables get into the central kitchen (for the school district),” Wiers said.

The “grow your own” concept fits in with Effie’s commitment to FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America). For several years the school has been home to an active FFA club, which stresses leadership skills.

“Ag education is big everywhere else,” Wiers said. “It’s just starting here.”

McCullough added, “We’re pushing; you have to start somewhere.”


Note from the author: Effie Kokrine was a Native educator who passed away in 2001 at the age of 82. Her daughter, Annette Freiburger, who is coordinator of the Nenana Center at UAF’s Interior-Aleutians Campus, said, “Effie would be very pleased with the garden and the promotion of the school all summer at the Downtown Market. She grew a beautiful garden to help feed her family; her garden was an important part of providing nutritious food.”


This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at