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Alternative education program takes root in Columbia Falls

Published On: Jul 31 2013 05:47:29 PM MDT   Updated On: Jul 31 2013 08:56:28 PM MDT

A new type of farm is taking root in Columbia Falls, and one resident hopes to cultivate an alternative education program for children with autism and special needs.

Sherry Lewis-Peterson is often seen with a water hose and garden shovel, tending fruits and vegetables with her son Hunter at the Montana Veteran's Home in Columbia Falls. Hunter is autistic, and Sherry learned early on that a traditional education was not working for him.

"I went back to school and decided that he would much prefer an outdoor environment to an indoor environment for learning," explained Lewis-Peterson.

So she's turning the garden into a classroom - her vision, Farming for the Future Academy. It's a 180-day school year that runs during the harvest April through December. Students with autism and other special needs will receive an individualized education program, or IEP, to guide them through each grade level.

"We're using the garden and the farm as the core curriculum and we build it around this," Lewis-Peterson said. "We're outside half the time, inside working on the other stuff."

Each student will learn how to grow and keep the grapes, raspberries, and tomatoes currently planted in the garden, eventually bringing them home or selling them at a farmers' market.

"It's going to be a lot of physical labor," said Lewis-Peterson. "It's going to be a lot of hands on approach to everything."

Like any garden, Farming for the Future Academy will take time and a little luck to grow. But Lewis-Peterson wants parents of children with special needs to know there are options out there, and her academy will be in full bloom soon.

"It doesn't have to be hopeless. It's wonderful," Lewis-Peterson concluded. "We have such cool kids we should be able to do wonderful things with them. You just need to look at different ways of doing them."

A shortened Academy school year will kick off in September. For more on Farming for the Future Academy, visit their website.