Just a month into Ben Biddle’s first school year as head of the newly renamed Gifft Hill School, the signs of change are already visible at the eight-acre campus, from the school store, which is slowly coming together, to student gardens flanking the upper school building.
Several of the ideas for new curriculum and money-making ventures that Biddle presented to parents at an April 25 meeting have already been implemented.
“Some of the ideas are indeed underway,” said Biddle. “It’s been great, and I’ve been very busy. Things are going very well.”
One thing keeping Biddle busy these days is his position as teacher of gardening and landscaping classes, which are new at the school this year.
“It takes a lot of energy,” he said of teaching the hands-on classes. “I have to be the students’ cheerleader, running around and making sure everyone is doing okay. The secret is, it needs to be fun.”
Although working in the hot sun and handling manure are part of the classes, kids are enjoying the new curriculum, said Biddle.
“It’s amazing what they can get done,” he said. “The other day we were out there pouring out trash bags full of manure, and they enjoyed it.”
The gardening and landscaping classes are part of Biddle’s effort to broaden what students have to offer going into college beyond “just an SAT score and a GPA,” he said.
The landscaping and gardening classes offer vocational skills in the form of a hands-on education, and they are popular with the students to boot.
“Landscaping is the most popular Monday class,” said Biddle. “They’re learning and they don’t even know it. They are learning the processes, and not at a chalkboard.”
Biddle himself is learning as well, he said.
Teacher, Students Learn Together
“When I moved here four years ago, I jumped into gardening aggressively,” said Biddle. “I enjoyed it so much, which is where I got the idea to bring it to the school. There are huge areas where I don’t have much knowledge, and we find the answers together.”
Answers to some questions, including how to deal with bugs, sun and the soil at the school, which is mostly rocky, will be learned through trial and error.
“This first year is more to get things right,” said Biddle. “We have to learn how to deal with the bugs and too much sun. The kids are part of figuring all that out, and they will learn as a result.”
Another hands-on learning opportunity at the school is the wood shop class, which has been offered in the past, but for the first time, students will have the opportunity to sell their creations at the school store this year.
Learning Dynamics of Economics
“They will only sell their items if they want to, but the kids seem to love the idea that they can make something and sell it at the school store,” said Biddle. “They will find a lot of satisfaction, and the money that is made will come back to the same programs that generated it.”
In addition to items made in wood shop, students will complement the school store’s shelves with the fruits and vegetables they grow.
“This teaches them the dynamics of production and economics,” said Biddle. “It’s the same stuff we try to bring across in the classroom, but it’s more profound when they are actually involved in the process of supply and demand.”
The school store, managed by Joe Moulton, will also offer imported organic produce and other organic products, and should be open for business to the public by mid-November, according to Biddle.
“True Middle School” Formed
In other changes at the school, the fifth and sixth graders joined the seventh and eighth graders at the upper campus to form a “true middle school,” said Biddle.
“Having just the elementary and upper schools wasn’t ideal — it seemed incomplete,” he said. “The middle school, while in the same building as the high school, is a separate entity, and the middle school is still a lot more hands-on. The teachers have very close relationships with their students.”
Biddle’s new plan will allow for high school students to mentor lower school students in gardening and possibly wood shop, he said.
“The pre-K class took a field trip to the upper school recently, and they were just as giddy as they could be,” said the GHS administrator. “They went to the school store, ate in the high school cafeteria, and walked the gardens. They were beside themselves with the thrill of it.”
School Constantly Evolving
Although this year is just the beginning of the school’s new direction, Biddle stressed the importance of the process of the school’s evolution.
“I don’t think this is an interim period,” he said. “It’s a process — the kids are involved in an ever-ongoing process.”
Students at the school now will have a different experience than kids at the school five years from now, but neither experience will be better than the other, according to Biddle.
“Each class will be here at different points in an ongoing evolution,” he said. “Kids here this year will have a different experience than kids here in five years, but neither is more valuable. The process seems to be unique.”
“The kids here in five years might have more aesthetic delights, but the kids here now will be able to say, ‘I put that there,’” Biddle added.
Keeping Big Picture in Mind
Former GHS Co-Administrators Scott Craw-ford and Sabrina Boebert, who stepped down and allowed Biddle to take the reins, are happy with the work he is doing, said Crawford.
“Between day to day issues and keeping the big picture in mind, Ben is doing a good job,” he said. “Sabrina and I talk daily about what a good decision it was to put him in charge.”
Crawford is now the Dean of Students, and Boebert is the Head of Business and Operations. Both teach at the middle school.
Crawford, who along with Boebert has been with the school for six years, said handing the responsibility over to Biddle was not as hard as he expected it to be.
“It was a lot easier than I anticipated, and Ben is the key with that,” said Crawford. “I know his commitment here, and that makes it very easy to step back and watch him work. His commitment makes all the difference.”