Lessons in farming and life: West Baltimore school regroups after violence claims class chickens

As a spotted Rhode Island Red squawked and beat its wings behind the West Baltimore school, a 6-foot-3 teenage boy backed away nervously.

“When they start flapping,” said Lavon Weathers, a high school senior, “I’m scared.”

His classmates laughed, and the cheerful morning Wednesday offered no hint of the grim fate of the previous chickens at Green Street Academy. Police say some two dozen neighborhood youths kicked down the door to the coop and beat the chickens dead with sticks. Stray dogs carried off the birds.

The new red-crowned hens arrived last week, marking a symbolic moment, said Dan Schochor, executive director of the public charter school in the 100 block of N. Hilton St. It serves 850 students in grades 6-12.

“Green Street doesn’t stop,” he said, “and life goes on.”

The only reminders of the school’s past effort were the barbed wire now encircling the pen and new padlocks protecting the coop. Unseen were the security cameras — reminders of a lesson that began about agriculture and became about not giving up.

The brown and blue eggs arrived two years ago to Tanya Montgomery’s Foundations of Agriculture class. She had planned to teach a lesson in sustainability, an exploration of how your food grows. In West Baltimore, after all, the food grows far away.

So her 10th- and 11th-graders learned to monitor conditions in the classroom’s rotating incubator — 99 degrees, 60 percent humidity. They logged observations through the end of 2015: “Eggs look a little dirty, like mud on them … beautiful … egg is chirping … can see a feather.”

One Friday, the eggs trembled; thin cracks appeared. By Monday, 10 downy chicks greeted the students.

“They were not just chickens, they were part of our school,” recalled Joseph Coston, 17, of Sandtown-Winchester.

They were two roosters, four Ameraucana and four Delaware hens. The teens doted over the gray runty one.

“There was a buzz around the high school,” Montgomery said. Names for the chickens were drawn at random; one was McChicken. “They thought that was just so funny,” the teacher said.

In the spring of 2016, the students rebuilt an abandoned chicken coop behind the school, screwing together the walls and stapling the chicken wire.

The charter school was founded eight years ago on principles of sustainability. On its eight-acre campus, apple trees grow in a small orchard, tomatoes in a hoop house. A student-built windmill spins above the barn. Six fattened koi fish swim around a pool in the lobby.

Teachers discovered the crime before school on April 18, 2016.

Overnight about 25 neighborhood youths broke down the coop and battered the chickens with sticks, police wrote in a report. There were feathers all over. Two dogs ran off with the dead birds, even McChicken.

“You put time and effort in and somebody just destroyed it,” Coston said.

Coston didn’t say it, but his mother did. “He cried; he was very upset,” Tanae Brown-Kenney said.

The students wanted answers.

“I just had to put a spin on it. We have to stay positive,” Montgomery said. “There’s a lot of negatives that go on in students’ lives. I’m not about to bring that into my program.”

There had been other crimes since the campus moved about three years ago from near the county line to the former Gwynns Falls Junior High School campus. The faculty wanted to move deeper into Baltimore and closer to the homes of their students. But Schochor didn’t count on the troubles. Someone trapped a hen in a trash can; afterward it was frightened of people. Another time, vandals punched holes through the hoop house.

Security cameras recorded the chicken deaths, but Montgomery said she couldn’t bear to watch the tape. No one has been caught, said Akil Hamm Sr., chief of Baltimore school police.

“I spent most of the day reassuring my students,” Montgomery said. “I just wanted to keep moving.”

Soon, her students were asking to raise more chickens. Rebuild the coop, they urged.

But vandals struck again weeks later, smashing the repairs before the class could hatch more chicks.

When summer turned to fall last year, a crew from the Constellation energy company was working on solar panels at the school. Teachers told them about the “chicken situation,” Schochor said.

So Constellation paid $5,000 for a new coop: the shingle-roofed, padlocked, red chicken house that stands today.

“A chicken palace,” Schochor said.

The school spent months fortifying the shelter. Eric Oberlechner, the school’s farm manager, built a fence topped with barbed wire. They hung a sign with red letters warning, “No Trespassing.”

Oberlechner answered a giveaway ad on Craigslist last week. He drove an hour to River Valley Ranch in Manchester and returned with four Rhode Island Reds. The hens — “Chickens 2.0,” Schochor calls them — scratched and strutted and clucked during a morning feeding Wednesday.

That buzz has returned around the school.

“It brought the school closer together,” said Weathers, the tall senior from Morrell Park.

It brings closure, Montgomery said.

She lingered over one student’s card from Teacher Appreciation Week last year. The note inside read: “I really appreciate that you stayed strong and didn’t give up when all this happened to our chickens.”

That was the real lesson.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Tim_Prudente

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