FAIRFIELD — Two tense high school boys faced one another on a muddy field Thursday, each holding a box of live bees.
When Tony Jadczak, the state’s top beekeeper, told the boys to open the boxes up and knock the bees down into newly assembled beehives sitting in front of them, a small crowd — made up of school faculty, alumni and other students from the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences — took several paces back to avoid being stung.
The moment highlighted an emerging difference between the state’s first charter school, which seeks to involve its 66 students in hands-on agricultural experiences and a traditional school environment that relies more heavily on classrooms and books.
Teaching kids how to handle bees or operate a tractor exposes them to the possibility of physical harm in a way that a classroom environment doesn’t, but academy co-director Emanuel Pariser said there is a tradeoff that makes that risk worthwhile.
“We live in a risk-averse society and I actually think education has gotten very risk-averse,” Pariser said.
But the school’s beekeeping activity raises red flags for Edward Dragan, the owner of Education Management Consulting, a New Jersey-based firm that provides expert witness litigation consultations for schools and parents. He has no specific knowledge of the Maine academy, but said any school can be sued in the event of a child injury, and agricultural activities are definitely risks.
“This school is risking a lawsuit if they have kids working on heavy equipment and beehives,” Dragan said. “Both can cause very serious injury or even death.”
Academy students might be more likely to come home with bee stings or a broken arm, but Pariser said they will also finish their education with a much better sense of how to get things done in the real world.
“The more we try to create a hermetically sealed, safe environment, the less people are going to be encountering what they’re going to be encountering as adults,” he said.
The program happened because Kevin Fabian, an apiarist from Oakland, volunteered to teach the students about beekeeping. The students expressed such enthusiasm that the school asked Fabian to teach an eight-week course that culminated with the introduction of the two beehives.
The hives will be maintained by students as they produce honey and wax while helping to pollinate the academy’s blueberries, another nascent agricultural project.
Bees carry with them the slightest hint of danger.
Every year, about 50,000 Americans wind up in the emergency room because of insect stings, which result in at least 50 deaths each year, according to the National Institute of Allergen and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
In a world where many schools have eliminated their merry-go-rounds and installed metal detectors at the doors, a statistic like that might be reason enough to keep its students — maybe including some with allergies — as far from bees as possible. But the risk of any particular student dying by a bee sting is small when compared to motor vehicle accidents, which killed more than 34,000 people in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The academy is comfortable with having bees on campus, as long as the students get proper instruction in how to handle them.
“Taking responsible risks is part of learning how to become a whole human being,” Pariser said.
The willingness to accept and manage such risk is part of the historic fabric of the academy. First approved as a charter school in 2011, the 1,800-acre academy is run by Good Will-Hinckley, which operated a home for troubled boys and girls at the same campus from 1889 until 2009, when financial problems forced it to close. For most of its history, students provided much of the labor for a working farm on the campus. The farm generated wood, food and other commodities for the school community, but its most important product was learning opportunity, according to founder George Walter Hinckley.
In the 1950s, kids on the campus operated with even more autonomy and independence, according to John Willey, who graduated from Good Will-Hinckley in 1952.
“Every Saturday afternoon, we were left entirely to ourselves, whether we were 9 or 18,” he said. “We would vanish in the woods, and we all knew we better be back when the dinner bell rang.”
Willey said there were occasional accidents, most notably when a boy struck his own foot with an ax and had to be rushed to the hospital for stitches.
“Back in the woods he went the following Saturday,” Willey said.
Willey himself became intimately acquainted with Isaac Newton’s laws of motion when, while trying to swing from one rafter to another in the school’s barn, he fell and broke his wrist.
But Willey said those incidents are what taught him and his classmates not to mishandle an ax or to dangle perilously from high places.
“To deny children that exploration is holding them back,” he said.
Pariser said he didn’t know how its insurance rates stack up against that of a comparable mainstream school, but that there have been no significant on-campus injuries since the charter school first opened its doors.
But if a child is hurt on the campus, Pariser said he believes the academy is less likely to be sued in the event of an injury because the parents understand and support the unusual teaching methods.
“We work very, very hard to establish partnerships with our parents. Parents know what’s going on here,” he said. “I believe that if the parents are apprised of what we’re doing and supportive of it, we’re not going to run into troubles with insurance and other kinds of issues because we’re all on the same side.”
Pariser also said parents can decline to have their children participate in any activity they feel is too unsafe.
The academy might be able to reduce risk by being careful with planning, including proper instructions for students and warnings to both the students and their parents, according to Dragan, of Education Management Consulting.
“The most important duty of a school is, in addition to educating students, to protect them from harm,” Dragan said. “School, and the administration and teachers have a responsibility to act in a way to protect the health, safety and welfare of students. If they breach this duty by allowing kids to engage in dangerous activity without appropriate supervision and precautions and a student becomes injured, the school may be liable.”
Dragan said that, over a 40-year career in education, he has witnessed a trend.
“Public schools are typically more careful with the development of policies that include safety and supervision of students than private schools,” he said. “Charter schools are public schools and should abide by the same standards that dictate student safety. Partly, it depends on the age of the students, the student-to-teacher ratio and some other factors. But just hearing heavy machinery and bees scares me for the safety of the kids and potential liability of the school.”
But to eliminate those risks, Pariser said, would be damaging to the students’ education, who he said graduate with more capability and know-how than their mainstream-educated counterparts.
“Because their education hasn’t been sealed off from the real world, but is happening in the real world,” he said, “then all of the things they can learn in doing something like this become much easier to apply in the real world.”
Many of the academy’s students weren’t succeeding in a traditional classroom.
“Other classrooms, it’s blah blah blah,” said Hannes Moll, a freshman who participated in the hive assembly. “Here, you actually learn how to do things.”
During the beehive installation, several students traveled from homes around the state to participate, despite the fact that the school is on vacation this week. Every instruction given by Jadczak and Fabian was listened to attentively and followed to the letter. Unlike students without that background, Pariser said, the academy’s students know how to engage with an instructor to learn how to solve a problem.
“When they go into a job, they already have developed a pathway in their brain that says, ‘OK, I’m going to tune in to this. This is important.’”