Behind Stuart Country Day School, the private girls school nestled in a wooded section of Princeton, math and economics teacher Sean Malloy recently came face to beak with a chicken helping students learn some valuable lessons.
Though his was not a new idea either in New Jersey or across the country, he thought to have a chicken coop at the school and obtained a grant to cover the cost. His original aim was to expand the extracurricular opportunities for his students.
“We originally brought in our finance classes, our economics classes, because we knew those programs are growing in schools,” Malloy said. “It’s been a space that’s been missing in the traditional education a kid gets before they hit college and an environmental and agricultural education is also something that has been absent from your traditional education.”
In all, Stuart is home to five chickens with colorful names like “Princess Lay-A” and “Hen Solo,” with more birds due to come. They serve as learning tools on two legs for students as young as 3 to seniors in high school, offering them insights into fields as diverse as science and business.
Two students in the upper or high school collect and sell chicken eggs in the school community. The chickens produce two dozen eggs a week, according to sophomore Reyna Bae, who named one of them “Extra Crispy.”
“We’re hoping to get a couple more chickens so we can up it a little,” she said of egg production.
Sale proceeds cover the cost of maintaining the birds, including food and bedding expenses. During the past school year, a dozen eggs sold for $5.
For students, the business side of having chickens brings with it a host of considerations they must keep in mind, from advertising their product to pricing the eggs. Bae, who hopes to go into a leadership and business field when she gets older, sees the experience as “a good starting point.”
For Malloy, he saw real-life benefits that students gain from running a business.
“It’s got costs, it has upkeep and overhead, it has customers, it has a little bit of marketing,” he said.
Younger students at the school are fans of the birds, too. Malloy said, for example, that one of his colleagues takes a class out each week to monitor the chickens and do other chores.
“It’s very nice to get some education outside the classroom, quite literally, and to have something on campus the students can walk down to,” he said.
Stuart is not the first school with a chicken coop. Nearby, Princeton Day School has had one for eight years and is home to 21 chickens.
“You can overlay the chickens onto almost any class,” said Pam Fleury, the garden coordinator and educator at PDS. “Some of our science classes will go out and make observations with the chickens. The photography classes are constantly going out there.”
She said lower school students at PDS have to care for the birds.
“There are a lot of pieces that get incorporated in terms of the science piece of it,” Fleury said, “but also just these soft skills, especially for the younger kids, it’s how do you take care of a living creature.”
Malloy said he met Fleury, who shared with him how her school had used its coop.
“I recognized it as an unbelievable cross-curricular opportunity that couldn’t possibly be more hands-on and more applicable, more realistic,” he said. “There’s nothing contrived about real agriculture.”
Like at PDS, Stuart has a coop that has a solar-powered door and is built to protect the birds from natural predators that live in the area. The coop also has a run for the chickens to walk around in.
“As the sun starts to go down, their instincts kick in, they walk up into the coop,” said Malloy, standing next to the coop where one of the birds is making her presence known.
Nothing about the coop goes to waste. Rain is captured in a rain barrel and then used for drinking water for the chickens. Bedding and chicken poop are composted into a fertilizer.
During the summer, when Stuart was on break, the chickens stayed with a science teacher at the school who lives on a farm and has chickens there already.
The program has been touched with tragedy, however. In the past school year, some chickens that were let out to roam during the day were killed by a dog, Malloy said. That cut into egg production, which had been at a dozen a day.
As for the other chickens, so far they have not been making any appearances on the school lunch menu.
“I hoped originally, because I knew the life cycle was going to be a big educational piece of it for the lower schoolers, I was hoping we would eat one of them,” Malloy said.
“Mr. Malloy, I didn’t know this,” said a surprised Bae, sitting across from him.
The school, though, has grown attached to the birds, even having a birthday party for one of them.
“You can’t name a chicken and then eat it,” Bae said. “That’s what I’ve learned.”