Farming Brighter Futures with Tyler Bastian at Roots Charter High School

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“I believe restoring kids to these processes helps them to learn about and value the human experience.”

Roots Charter High School is a “a farm based high school that targets students who are at risk of academic failure and who have failed or struggled in the traditional education model.” Through lessons of life and farming, Tyler has been creating a simultaneously educational and loving environment, as the founder and principal of Roots Charter High School.

Roots takes a holistic approach to education, demonstrating how basic human needs must be met before addressing bigger issues. “I was teaching character development and I realized that students needed more than what most schools were offering. They needed a safe place and a place that they experienced love and accepting. I realized that students needed to not only learn facts and figures but they needed to see why what they were learning mattered and have their learning authenticated. I realized and concluded that the farm would be an amazing way to authenticate the concepts as well as a great way to reconnect them with the world and cycles around them,” says Tyler.

“Many of our students come to us midway through their high school experience. They are kicked out, or pulled out of the school that they are in and transferred to Roots,…credit deficient and not on track to graduate…Our goal is to get them on track and graduating with their class.” He continues, “there is naturally something about the dirt and being outside that increases peace and curiosity.”

The farm is a big part of the Roots school program, sharing the story behind where food comes from, and an appreciation for life and death. “We don’t understand where our food comes from, and often don’t care…Many of us have never watched the real processes of life. We haven’t ever watched anything be born. We haven’t ever seen anything die. We haven’t ever grown anything to eat. All of these are processes that are necessary to sustain life yet we are ignorant to them.”

Unplugging from virtual reality and plugging back into reality is not always so simple. “Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of resources available. There is the 4H in most areas and there are chapters of FFA in some schools. However I believe there is a real lack of opportunities for students and youth in almost all urban areas to access a farming or growing experience.”

At Roots Charter High School, the students and staff run a five acre farm
“I don’t want my kids to not understand the source and sacrifice of their food.”

Rose Colored Glasses

It is easy to feel disconnected from the food system, and farming was the ticket to discovery. “I was drawn to farming by two incidents experienced with my kids. One took place in a grocery store. We were looking at a floor freezer full of bags of chicken legs. Each bag contained 40 drummets. I grabbed one of the bags, held it up and I asked my ten year old daughter how many chickens one bag represented. She said she had no idea. I asked her how many legs a chicken had, she responded two. As the thought sunk in her eyes got big. I watched the wheels in her head turn as it dawned on her the enormity of life that was frozen in front of her. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want my kids to not understand the source and sacrifice of their food.’”

The concept of using farming as a teaching tool was appealing, Tyler describes, “when I first thought about the idea of a farm based school, I looked online for other examples. I found two that I went and visited. One is called Common Ground High School in New Haven CT and the other is called Green Chimneys in Brewster NY. I believed this would work because it is so basic. If I had a penny for every time someone I admire talked about how beneficial it was for them to grow up around and participating in Agriculture, I would be rich.”

In terms of finding the right site and putting down roots, “I knew that I wanted to be in West Valley City. It is a very underserved city in our area and I saw that they had little to no access to their food sources. It is hard to put a school like ours in a developed urban area and so we had to find a location that allowed animals and agriculture but also had good public transportation access. We found it and love where we are.”

Tyler started the conceptualization of Roots in 2012 and opened the doors in 2015.
“Many of our kids aren’t interested in food systems when they arrive. We try and ignite an interest. Our goal with the future of our students is to get them into a trade.”

556 Bees

556 bees, in fields, in orchards, in the hidden citrus flower on a rooftop garden. Darting to and from a tiny entrance to the hive, racking up the breadth of flight to circle around the earth twice, with a bit of change left over. They are foraging for pollen and nectar, sources of water, new territories and daylight hours. The most precious of these, the flower nectar, carefully transported back to the hive, stored in tightly packed cells, and fanned vigorously into sweet honey with tireless and delicate paired wings, attached with only a thin membrane. Instructions are communicated with a peculiar dance, one successful bee painting the map to a new source of nectar, in whatever form bees take directions. Then, when the honey is done, the cells are capped, and the bees carry on darting and dancing, and foraging again. To make one pound of honey takes countless bees, about 556 busy bees visiting millions of flowers over the course of their lives.

Its not just about keeping the bees in a box, but keeping the bees in a box. The careful cultivation of inquiry and excitement is in applying real-life meaning to learning opportunities. Tyler says, “the other experience was beekeeping.  I was blown away by how interested and inquisitive my kids became as they were working a hive. My son hates to read, but when I put him on the task of figuring out hive issues he would read until he found the answer. I was intrigued how successful I could be as a teacher and father to get my kids engaged with real world problems.”

Roots Charter High School also has a number: 243. Mister Rogers has taught us that the number 143 means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you. For Roots, that ‘I’ has become ‘We’. “We want there to be no place in the school that a student can’t see ‘We Love You’ or 243. We believe as the students have this constant reminder they will be able to draw upon that reminder when they need it most.”

The farm helps the students see a real, practical use for what they’re learning
My philosophy is influenced by the need and the benefits of students, and adults, being connected to the life cycles that surround them.”

Follow Tylers journey on the school farm through beautiful photos on Instagram @farm_principal, or check out the Roots website for more details at rootshigh.org

Find out how you can donate to support Roots students here.

A big Thank You to Tyler Bastian for sharing the story and photos for this piece!


Rapid fire:

Hometown: Salt Lake City is my hometown, but I grew up in California.

Favorite book or book character right now: My favorite book is Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle. Much of who I am today and what I do in life has been influenced by that book.

Tool you cannot live without: I can’t live without my glasses, actual glasses, spiritual glasses and my rose colored glasses 🙂

Also learn more from Tyler about Picking Your Own Problems and how Everything is Incredible

Cultivated Life

Smoothly beveled, teardrop-shaped seeds rattle about their paper sleeve, shifting like loose pebbles along a riverbank, intently inspected by the un-winked eye of their caretaker. Below them, dirt; you can still find parcels of un-built landscape in the city, a last remaining clue of what used to span endlessly beneath our feet.

The farmer slides them one by one into freshly prepped beds, confidently laying the final row, easily mistaken for any other disturbed and bare line of dirt, if not for the label at the front, ”pumpkin”. It has taken tries to get it right, our farmer finding the way here, having been so distant from the roots of the food system for so long. These tries, and persistence, are teaching tools, necessary to understand the right depth, the right pressure, the right kind of patience to cultivate a living something from something of a seed.

The farmer tucks the seeds into this new home, anticipating, as many farmers have before, the sudden peek of green emerging from the bare dirt; so uniquely ubiquitous yet elusive. From the dark earth, stretching into the light, our seeds are now a burst of crisp angular leaves, spreading in all directions, cloaking the earth with cultivated life.