Lessons Learned at Spring Brook Farm An Evaluation of the Farms For City Kids Program

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Spring Brook Farm is a crucible for change for the students who spend a week there. According to student and teacher accounts, many factors contribute to making the farm week a unique experience that is surprisingly powerful for the students and effective at imparting important life skills. Taken away from home, often for the first time, and put into a challenging yet completely safe environment, students are given the opportunity to assume personal responsibility for difficult, meaningful, real-world tasks at which they can succeed. Guided by their teachers and a supportive farm staff, students try new things and discover that they are capable of accomplishing many things they did not imagine possible. The cooperative atmosphere established through teamwork, and the shared goal of achieving purposeful tasks creates the conditions for each student to feel needed and valued, and to recognize the potential of fellow students.
Healthy self-confidence and self-esteem should develop in the context of the community, not just the individual. By helping the animals, the farm staff, and each other, students feel capable and good about themselves. Their personal successes and strengths benefit the larger whole, and they are recognized for their individual contributions. Becoming valued team and social group members further contributes to feelings of self-worth. For many students this is their first opportunity to make such a significant contribution.

The evaluation data suggests that as the program is currently operating, Spring Brook Farm is making an important difference in the lives of the students who visit there. Great potential may exist to further strengthen and broaden program outcomes. It will be up to the farm staff and board to best determine if changes or additions to the program are warranted.

Selected recommendations

Recommendations are divided into two categories: program recommendations that stem from teacher comments and evaluator observations, and evaluation recommendations that offer ideas about how to continue to work toward understanding the program and making it as effective as possible. A more detailed and extensive set of recommendations is available in the evaluation portfolio.

Program recommendations

Program recommendations are offered with the intention of fostering conversation among the farm staff and board about outcomes of the farm program and how to improve them. In addition to the recommendations the evaluation team generated when analyzing the complete data set, specific recommendations made by teachers who completed surveys are also included. Any quotes used in this section are drawn from the teacher surveys.

Provide more opportunity for reflection

By giving the students more time to reflect on their farm experiences, and guiding them through it in an engaging way, students may be able to more explicitly understand the values and skills they are learning at the farm. It was evident in the student evaluations that some students were able to describe what they understood about teamwork, conflict resolution, leadership, and other skills developed through the chores, but that other students did not have either the language or the understanding to explain it well.

Do more skill building exercises

Teachers indicated a desire to have more skill building activities and exercises. Teachers clearly felt that time at the farm is valuable, and should be used to maximum effect. The students are evidently in a very receptive state while at the farm, making it a good time to reinforce the lessons they are learning to the strongest degree possible. Teachers suggested team building activities, social skill building evening activities, and problem-solving role playing games.

Expand the reach of the program with follow up activities

“My hope has always been that we could somehow expand the experience and follow up with the students who have gone through the program. We need a way for them to reconnect with the experience and reinforce the values and skills they have learned.” This teacher’s comment summarizes the difficulty of instilling lasting values in just five days.
Developing ways to help students keep in touch with the farm and the important lessons, values, and behaviors learned there is perhaps the most important and effective way for the program to make a more lasting impact. A number of possibilities exist for doing this, including:

  • compiling ideas from teachers who already do this;

  • developing appropriate farm-themed academic lessons and units for teachers;

  • offering a professional development workshop that could train teachers in how to effectively translate the farm lessons and experiential learning styles back to their classrooms;

  • developing an interactive website useful and interesting enough that students visit it regularly; and

  • offering ideas to teachers and parents about providing students with structured chores.

Evaluation recommendations

Evaluation is a reflective practice. With an eye on desired outcomes, program staff can always be asking, “Is what we are doing the best way to meet our goals?” Evaluation recommendations are offered to suggest means by which evaluation can become a part of the organization’s culture, fostering a mindset of continuous program improvement.

Refine the program logic model based on evaluation findings

At the outset of the evaluation, an ambitious and thorough logic model was developed. Given the findings of the evaluation, the logic model should be revisited by program staff and updated to reflect new understanding of program outcomes. The logic model can then be used as a tool to consider where program activity changes might be warranted and where future program evaluation would be most useful.

Continue collecting surveys from students and teachers at the farm

Teacher and student surveys should be revised based on ongoing evaluation needs determined by the farm staff and board. The surveys should be collected regularly at the farm and entered into a database so that farm staff can easily refer to the data and analyze it systematically to inform ongoing program improvements. (Evaluators can assist in developing new surveys and analysis techniques.) In the immediate future, new emphasis should be placed on gathering information useful to fulfilling any of the program recommendations that are deemed worthy of pursuing. Ongoing data analysis could be conducted internally by program staff or by an external evaluator.

Use process evaluation as a tool for new program development

Process evaluation involves examining program planning and delivery activities, and considers how these activities compare with what was intended. Critical to the success of new farm programs will be engaging many stakeholders (including teachers, community partners, school administrators, and program alumni) in the development process. Development of program-specific logic models can also be helpful to clarify the desired inputs, activities, and outcomes of the new programs.

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