ANNA BOARINI, Manchester Journal

DANBY -- An icon of outdoor education in the area is once again in operation.

After a hiatus, the Smokey House has partnered with the Tutorial Center to create an alternative education program for high school students. The Smokey House was first founded by Stephen and Audrey Currier when they purchased the original house and tract of land in 1958. However, they were killed in a tragic plane crash and the land was transferred to the Taconic Foundation, which they previously established in New York City. In 1974, the youth work program was started, where young people learned through direct management of the land reserve.

Jesse Pyles, the executive director of the Smokey House Center, said the program has a great reputation of engaging youth in agricultural programs, specifically the Youth Works program. This program, which ended about three years ago, had small groups of kids in groups of six where they focused on learning skills, got school credit and made state minimum wage, he said. "In our more recent history, about the past 15 or 16 years [The Smokey has been know for] our field studies program," he said. "That citizen scientist kind of stuff. Collecting data, reporting data, forest inventory, bird species, water quality assesment...real [science]. They are really very much involved with real field science."

Since bringing the tutorial center onboard, Smokey House is now able to offer "Youth Work and Learn - Farm and Forest" an alternative education program for students in high school.

The students come to Smokey House for five or six hours a day, Juanita Burch-Clay, the program director said. Some students come every day, while others attend their traditional high school or go to private tutoring at the Tutorial Center.

Birch-Clay, said the pilot program for this started back in April with just a couple of students two days a week. Over the summer, a group of six students who kept working in the garden and also did some forestry work.

The students in the program are by personality or nature very active, enjoy working with hands and being outside, said Jack Glade, director of the Tutorial Center.

"When you open up the four walls of a classroom you give them a chance to thrive," he said. Guidance counselors and teachers can recommend students to the program, but parents can also enroll their child. Burch-Clay said the students that thrive in this type of environment need to be safe with tools and comfortable being outside and in the woods.

Now, there are six students and the program runs all week. Birch-Clay said since the school year has started, they continued to work in the garden, learned how to scythe, made cider with a hand press and worked on weather observations, among other activities.

Lucas Hanson is one of the students currently at the Smokey House. He said one of his favorite parts of coming here is not sitting around in a classroom. Dillon Williams was one of the students that worked at Smokey House over the summer.

"I’m not sitting in a classroom, learning out of books. I like that," he said.

All the students agreed that their least favorite part of this program was working on their blogs. Birch-Clay explained that everyday the students participate in some kind of free writing and reflection on an internal blog.

Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, one of the Smokey House educators, said one of the best parts of the program being new is getting to invent it. "We have the flexibility if something [doesn’t work]...certain things we do ever day [like] reflection writing, but we really do get to follow interests," he said. "If we’re on a roll, the students are engaged in something, we can continue...a luxury you don’t have in a regular school where you are plugged into 45 minute periods." Part of why the flexibility in the program works is because the students and teachers are able to form a relationship based on mutual trust and honesty. Bruch-Clay said good education is based in these kinds of relationships and through no fault of anyone, they are harder to create and maintain in a traditional educational environment.

"Here we can actually get to know each student individually," she said. "Nobody gets lost in the cracks, you can’t do all the distractions that happen in a normal classroom, we’re all face to face."

A benefit of a program like what the Smokey House offers is allowing the students to get real world experience in careers they may pursue after high school. Jake Merriman, one of the students, said he’s become interested in forestry and land management. Hanson said he really likes to cook, something he get to do everyday at the Smokey House.

Now that students like Merriman and Hanson know what they enjoy doing, they can learn more about the trade of their choice, as well as even get any certification they may need, Jack Glade, director of the Tutorial Center said. "The exciting part of the Smokey House is we built the option so that they can get assigned here and can get education here...and find that little path that will work," he said. "They have a lot of opportunity here to work with food, preparing food, earn some certificates, like a ServSafe certificate [from the national restaurant association] that can help them get hired in a restaurant."

Burch-Clay said sometimes when asked a direct question, the students can freeze and automatically respond, "I don’t know." Her goal, and Chesnut-Tangerman’s is to get the student to realize they know the answer and help them realize they are learning. She said it is breaking those old habits left over from their experience in a traditional education setting.

"Part of what we’re doing is trying to break those old habits, of whatever you learned to protect yourself, so that you wouldn’t call attention to your self and be embarrassed in front of other people," she said. "We won’t embarrass you here, we aren’t talking about failing, so we want you to recognize what you’re learning, build some confidence and do some problem solving."