SKOWHEGAN — Staff members from the Marti Stevens Learning Center in Skowhegan delivered meal kits to students Tuesday morning that were stocked with all the fixings for a Thanksgiving meal, including whole chickens raised by the students.

The idea to have students raise chickens came after the staff brainstormed ways to incorporate more outdoor learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the COVID shutdown, we started raising chickens, laying hens just as something fun to do with our families,” School Director Dylan Engler said. “But we thought that it would be something fun to bring to the kids and teach them a little more about self sufficiency.”

Beginning in September, about 20 students were tasked with building a chicken coop and caring for the birds, from the time they hatched until they were slaughtered last week at Greaney’s Turkey Farm in Mercer.

“The kids built the coop, they fed the chickens, weighed them and measured them on a weekly basis,” teacher Josh Harris said.

The eggs were donated by Murray McMurray Hatchery of Webster City, Iowa, and the materials to build the chicken coop were donated by several lumberyards in the area.

The Skowhegan Rotary Club donated the fixings for the meal kits, including potatoes, stuffing, rolls, dessert and a pan in which to cook the chicken.

Staff members loaded two vans Tuesday morning and drove through Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Canaan, delivering 14 meals to students and their families.

“This has been a real community effort,” Harris said. “From building the coop, to raising the chickens, to now delivering the meals. It’s been all about the community.”

Raising the chickens was part of a larger project that had students learning to manage a homestead.

Marti Stevens Learning Center student David Bernier, 17, right, receives a chicken Tuesday from teacher Josh Harris at Bernier’s house in Skowhegan. Members of the school staff delivered 14 chickens and all the trimmings to students in Skowhegan and Norridgewock. Students built a chicken coop and raised the birds that were distributed. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“They needed to come up with a budget and figure out how many animals they would need to feed a family of four,” teacher Tristen Hinkle said. “They needed to know how much space the animals would need, what materials they would need to raise the animals.

“We taught them how to use Microsoft Office so they could make spreadsheets for this. In the spring, we’re going to incorporate our garden here so the kids will learn what kind of food they need to grow to feed their animals.”

The project received positive feedback from students, according to Harris.

“This has been a great thing,” Harris said. “The kids would take classroom breaks and go out to the coop to hang out with the chickens, pet the chickens for a while. They got to learn about what it means to take care of them and the process.”

The Marti Stevens Learning Center began in downtown Skowhegan as the Cross Roads Learning Center, a school and home for teen mothers. It was incorporated into Maine School Administrative District 54 in 1987, and moved in 2001 to its current location, 195 West Front St.

Students Chris Ness, 14, holds a chick at the Marti Stevens School in Skowhegan. Photo courtesy of Josh Harris

The school operates on a project-based learning model, with a focus on agriculture.

“One of our challenges is we often inherit kids who are pretty checked out from school,” Engler said. “Whether that’s just a lack of interest or bad experiences, we’ve tried to find ways to reengage them and get them interested in anything again. And this has been a very high interest project. This has shown them more ways to control their own education and their own lives.”

Based on students’ response to this year’s project, Engler and Harris plan to do it again next year — on a larger scale.

“We’ll definitely do this again, for sure,” Engler said. “I think for next year, we’ll be doing some planting and doing some more planning around trying to grow the things to go with the chicken, like potatoes, corn, carrots.”

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