Profile :: Wise Counsel: Middle school counselor gets her hands dirty.

“I know this is going to sound a little strange, but Rutland reminds me a lot of Queens,” Kristen Kirchoff says as she sips her coffee at Café Terra on a recent Friday afternoon.

A counselor at Rutland Middle School who works with behaviorally challenged students, Kirchoff has been in Rutland for two years and feels right at home, which might come as a surprise since she grew up in Flushing Queens, N.Y.

“I knew nothing about Vermont when I moved up here,” she said, admitting that she envisioned something a much more like a Norman Rockwell painting. “Rutland is not what I was expecting in a small Vermont city.”

But that’s a good thing. While she’ll admit that Rutland isn’t perfect, Kirchoff has developed a strong affinity for the city, warts and all. And in her line of work, she sees her share of warts.

As a counselor at the middle school, Kirchoff spends her days working one-on-one with some of the school’s most in-need students. Acknowledging that her job isn’t for everyone, she is quick to note that she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“Every day, you go into battle,” she said of her work, “You have these kids who are dealing with so much – low self-esteem and all this baggage from home – the time you have them in school is the only consistency and structure some of them have.”

Often, her students are a product of their environment. “What they see is how they act,” she said.

To that end, Kirchoff uses every day as an opportunity to provide them with an alternative model, teaching them by example.

Of her decision to throw herself into such difficult and often trying work, she is unwavering. After graduating from St. John’s University with a master’s in school counseling, Kirchoff took a job at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) on Long Island.

“I was working with a lot of gang- and drug-involved students there,” she said, “After a year, I decided that this is what I wanted to do.”

Vermont felt like a good move.

“I knew I wanted to live someplace where there were mountains,” she said of her decision. Little did she know at the time how much of a country girl she’d become.

Last winter, Sustainable Rutland approached Rutland Public Schools about starting a student-run garden behind the middle school. Kirchoff arrived at the first meeting not knowing what to expect. Then-assistant principal Bill Olson had spoken with her ahead of the meeting.

“Bill and I had been talking a lot about looking at some new ways to engage my students,” she said. “We both got really excited about the garden.”

At the meeting, Kristen emerged as a passionate advocate for the garden and, in subsequent conversations, it became clear that the gardens would be an effective resource for her students. Soon, she became the garden coordinator.

“I’m a city girl; I’d never had dirt under my nails before,” she said. Fortunately, Kirchoff had support from a dedicated network of volunteers.

In addition to Sustainable Rutland, volunteers from the Rutland Area Farm & Food Link (RAFFL), Stafford Technical Center, RPS’s Tapestry program, the Rutland Rec Department and Greg Cox from Boardman Hill Farm lent a hand to make the garden happen. Even Rutland’s Mayor Christopher Louras and his wife Judy offered up their time to both till the garden and tend to it over the summer.

Despite the assistance, the garden was Kirchoff’s baby.

“I love spending time out there,” she said as she proudly shows off some photos of her and her students at work. Her dedication has not gone unnoticed.

“Kristen has great energy,” Sustainable Rutland co-chair Carol Tashie said. “That garden wouldn’t have been a success without her.”

While she had no gardening experience at the outset – “I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever owned,” she jokes – Kirchoff is eager to get her hands dirty again as she looks ahead to the spring.

“Looking back, it was cool that I didn’t have any experience,” she said. “The kids and I were in it together. We were all learning our way. If we failed, we failed together. I was right there with them.”

In the end, the garden was a success. Students were active throughout the summer thanks to Kirchoff and the school’s Tapestry program, growing several hundred pounds of produce which they donated to RAFFL’s “Grow an Extra Row” program. The real impact of the project, however, was on the students.

“The best part of this garden was watching their amazement,” Kirchoff said, recounting a story of how she overheard one of her students describing the “awesome” color of an eggplant to his friends.

Kirchoff works with students for whom the traditional classroom experience is a struggle. The garden became their oasis.

“These are kids that need a different learning environment,” she said. The garden provided them with a structured escape from sitting behind a desk. “They really got into it.”

Indeed, word of the garden quickly spread throughout the middle school. Soon, students were stopping Kirchoff in the halls asking how they could get involved.

“I told them to tell their teachers that they wanted to come out there,” she said, noting that all middle and intermediate school students have access to the garden. Next year, she is hopeful that more teachers will take advantage of this invaluable teaching resource.

Back inside, Kirchoff measures success in smaller increments than rows of crops or pounds of zucchini.

“It can be so hard to get through to these kids,” she said. “You have to look for the little things.”

She gives an example of a former student who returned recently to visit. A freshman now, who is still having behavioral difficulties, he bemoaned how tough his new instructors were on him just as Kirchoff has warned.

“The fact that he came by to visit, I know that was big for him,” she said, smiling. Some teachers may dismiss him as someone else’s problem now, but Kirchoff chalks it up as a victory.

While the day-to-day battles may be many and hard, Kirchoff remains optimistic and committed to making a difference in her students’ lives.

“That’s the biggest challenge,” she said, “To get them to understand that life is difficult, their situations may be bad, but they can change it – they have the power to make a better life for themselves if they want it.”

Expressed: (Approximately) 5 questions for Kristen Kirchoff
The Express’ Jim Sabataso caught up with Rutland Middle School counselor and school garden coordinator Kristen Kirchoff to talk about music, gardening and libraries.

Jim Sabataso: You’re a big music fan. What are you listening to right now?

Kristen Kirchoff: Kings of Leon’s getting a lot of plays on the iPod these days. The Black Crowes, Dr. Dog and Lyrics Born, too. I left Phish behind at the end of the tour this summer.

JS: And a Phish-head, too? What shows did you catch?

KK: Shoreline, The Gorge, SPAC.

JS: I was at SPAC. What’d you think?

KK: The Gorge was better.

JS: Let’s talk about the Middle School Gardens. What was the best part of the experience?

KK: Learning I could grow. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever owned so realizing that I was able to grow all this food was pretty amazing to me. It also taught me patience.

JS: So you’re a transplant, what do you do for fun in Rutland?

KK: I really like the library. I probably should make up something cooler, huh?

JS: The library’s pretty cool.

KK: I also like to go downtown with my friends. Hit up The Paramount when there’s a good show.

JS: Derek Trucks is there November 6th.

KK: I know. Can’t wait.

JS: So as a library fan, how do you feel about it potentially moving?

KK: I hated it at first until I found out more about the issue. I like it where it is, but the building really needs a lot of work. It might make sense to move. Change can be painful, but it can also be good.

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