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When math lessons at a goat farm beat sitting behind a desk

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Wess Wheeler (L), an independent learning opportunity student at Randolph Union High School, and Miles Hooper, manager and co-owner of Ayers Brook Goat Dairy farm, among the goats.

RANDOLPH, Vt. — Miles Hooper, the 26-year-old manager of Vermont’s largest goat farm, remembers what it’s like to be 16 and not want to be in a classroom. Just 10 years ago, he was kicked out of his Vermont public school and finished at an alternative high school in Maine.

That’s why Hooper identifies with Wessley “Wess” Wheeler, the sophomore spending two afternoons a week at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy farm through a program that lets high school students in this rural town earn academic credit via hands-on work.

“Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to figure out I’m smart in other ways,” Hooper recalls, then stops suddenly, remembering something.

“Crap, I forgot to switch out the milk in the pasteurizer,” he says, before sprinting for the barn, Wess hurrying behind him. Miles moves the milk, and they’re off again, charging past pens of goats leaping up to greet them as they pass.

A minute later, Miles is checking if there’s enough detergent and acid to clean the milk tank after Vermont Creamery finishes collecting the day’s milk. When the tank is empty, he whips out a calculator, and does the math. He sold 8,405 pounds of milk at 55 cents a pound — that’s $4,623 for the day.

Here at the farm, there’s no curriculum, but math and science lessons are all around you, and there’s always a problem to solve. For Wess, who has ADHD and struggles with textbook math, the five hours he spends here each week are a welcome break from the confines of his classroom at Randolph Union, the 374-student middle and high school he attends a half-mile away.

“It’s better to be out here than sitting behind a desk listening to a teacher talk,” Wess says. “Here, I get to do things.”

Such hands-on work is just one way students at Randolph Union gain real-life experience and exposure to careers in their communities. Field trips to local employers are another. It’s all part of a statewide push to “personalize” learning, giving students more of a say over what — and where — they study. The effort has two chief goals: keeping students engaged in school and keeping them in the state after they graduate.

Vermont has one of the oldest populations in the United States and, the Vermont State Data Center reports, is now tied with Connecticut for the lowest birth rate in the nation. If the state doesn’t find a way to hold on to its shrinking number of students — or persuade more workers to move to Vermont — it won’t be able to fill the jobs left vacant by retiring baby boomers, with more than 100,000 new job openings projected by 2024. The tax base will diminish, and the state will wind up with budget deficits.

That’s the “doomsday scenario” Vermont is trying to avoid through programs like Randolph Union’s, says Joan Goldstein, the state’s commissioner of economic development. She is part of a statewide campaign aimed at convincing former residents to return and visitors to stay.

In fact, the Green Mountain state is so eager to grow its population that it’s offering up to $10,000 a year to new residents who work remotely for an out-of-state employer.

It’s better to be out here than sitting behind a desk listening to a teacher talk.

But Goldstein, who helped create a hands-on manufacturing course at Randolph Union in 2014, says “retention is much easier than recruitment.” And work-based learning, she says, helps students see “that there are opportunities here, that they don’t have to leave” to find good jobs.

There are other potential benefits, too. Getting students out into the community could help bridge the growing divide between Vermont’s public schools and the aging taxpayers who finance them, says Elijah Hawkes, Randolph Union’s principal.

“Either you fund programs that connect with the community, or the community isn’t going to fund your school,” he says.

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