Talk about being cooped up at school.
That’s the story for three chickens that have become permanent residents at St. James Elementary School in the Smithtown school district, where educators and the local PTA transformed an outdoor courtyard into a fowl-friendly free-range space. The chickens — all hens — have their own wooden coop and students from different classes in the K-5 school will take turns caring for them.
“It’s a great outdoor learning experience for them,” said Principal Mary Grace Lynch, who’s in her 17th year at the school. “The children learn about how to care for animals that are different from the animals they may have at home.”
The idea was hatched at a PTA meeting in the spring where parents and school staff were thinking of ways to revitalize the open space adjacent to a windowed hallway connecting the original 1938 school building to its newer additions. Dozens of the 500-plus students in the K-5 school pass through this hallway each day right by an outdoor learning space that has a small pond, trees and plants, and had been decorated with rocks hand-painted by the children before the chickens arrived, before the start of the school year.
“I came up with the idea of putting chickens in, and I have chickens at home and I really thought the kids would enjoy having them and be able to learn a lot from them,” said Lisa Raschdorf, a current member and past president of the school’s PTA. She purchased and kept the chickens at her home until they were moved to the school before the first day of classes on Sept. 5.
Lynch said educators researched whether other area schools had chickens but didn’t find much.
There is an emerging “schoolyard chicken” movement nationwide, according to Purina Animal Nutrition, which has partnered with 16 schools across the country to help feed their flocks and support a hands-on learning experience.The company said in a statement Thursday that schoolyard chicken coops are not just in rural places, and schools in Chicago and Manhattan have added chickens as a part of a curriculum to provide students with hands-on experience with agriculture.
“Schoolyard chickens start a fun conversation with parents once the students go home for the day as well,” Katie Signorelli, backyard flock marketing manager with Purina Animal Nutrition, said in a statement. “When parents ask, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ their children can respond with impressive flock knowledge. We’ve seen teachers incorporate lessons on how to hatch eggs, what chickens eat and how an egg is formed and laid.”
St. James Elementary’s chickens have been named for the school’s character-building principles — compassion, courage and respect. Compassion’s nickname is Teresa, named for Mother Teresa, Courage’s nickname is Mickey in honor of John McCain and Respect is named Aretha, in honor of Aretha Franklin.
The district OK’d the best laid plans for the coop, and funding for the chickens and their environs was provided by the PTA, rather than using district money, Raschdorf said.
The chickens are young and have not yet produced eggs. There are 26 classes in the school and each will become the “class of the week” that will get to care for the chickens and eventually collect eggs, which they may be able to bring home, Lynch said. The chickens can stay in their space over school breaks, where school staff will check in on them.
Meanwhile, the schoolchildren think that St. James having its own flock is an “egg-cellent” idea.
Second-grader Andrew Morlas, 7, said he once saw a chicken up close at the zoo. Now, having chickens in his own school is “cool because I have never seen a school have chickens before.”
His sister, Isabella Morlas, 10, who’s in fifth grade, said she “thinks that it’s going to be very fun to interact with the chickens.”
And, second-grader Macey Wrenn, 7, said she always looks for the chickens when she walks through the hallway by their home.
“I always check on them,” she said.