Seward schools go wild on habitat program
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
Seward Middle and Elementary School Science teacher Carlyn Nichols (gesturing) facilitates a small group discussion of habitat improvements, around a map of school lands.
There are big plans underway to create an interesting learning environment around all three Seward public schools that would get students and teachers out of the classroom to learn and engage more with their environment. Improvements throughout the school grounds could also enhance school sports programs and provide access between schools and neighboring habitat. The program would create opportunities for the entire community to take advantage of an amazingly large area of wooded land and trail system inside city limits.
The Seward Schoolyard Habitat Program committee held a public meeting last week at the high school to update the community and gather additional ideas. The committee already has progressed further than most other Alaska outdoor programs she speaks with are, said Heather Fuller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Outdoor Classroom and Habitat Program. That is because Seward area teachers and community members already have spent six months identifying project ideas and have garnered $25,000 in funding, to be matched locally project by project.
Projects that can be grant-funded by USFWS must be educational, must be integrated into the classroom curriculum, and provide stewardship by the students, said Fuller. They must have a wildlife and habitat restoration component that will benefit trust species such as migratory birds and salmon, and be planned to last for at least 10 years with relatively low maintenance and funding. The proposal should also provide benefits that the entire community can appreciate and take advantage of, she said.
Small, simple projects that the committee believes students could undertake under the draft plan include building bird feeders, bird and bat houses, a sundial, and a wildlife viewing fence. More modest project ideas include creating a decorative entrance sign on the west side of the high school that could be accompanied by a small native garden; an outdoor class area that could be a simple bench arrangement in a native habitat area, or even building a major covered structure somewhere, such as a pavilion.
Gardening could be done, with a focus on growing vegetables that could be planted early, with low maintenance and that could harvested in the fall. An alternative heat source could be added to the existing high school greenhouse. There’s also an idea for a wildlife motion camera project.
Students, or community members could build wooden park benches that would be placed along trails and interpretive signs could also be placed along trails depicting and describing the fauna and flora in those. Drawing from other funding, murals also could be created and mounted on school buildings to beautify them, they said.
Then there are the major projects. Topping that list is a plan to remove the non-native pine shrubs running along the front of the elementary school, and replace them with native trees bushes and wild flowers. The next phase would be building a 90-foot by 120-foot native species garden northwest of the parking lot.
Another big project is developing and extending the trail system around, between, and possibly beyond the schools. A third project would be taking decisive action on implementing invasive plant control for bird vetch and reed canary grass, which grow behind the lower schools, and including the students in decisions about how best to do this.
Matt Gray, the Watershed Program Coordinator for project partner Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, has already taken the related program training. Seward Elementary School teachers Jennifer Haugh and Bob Barnwell, along with middle and high school science teacher Carlyn Nichols also are on the steering committee. They, and several other local teachers already have been actively involved with the concept of outdoor learning through their own education efforts, the multi-agency I-TREK workshops, and programs such as Scheffler Creek monitoring and restoration as well as invasive-species eradication efforts.
Some of the existing trails are regularly maintained by running coach and high school teacher Dan Marshall who uses his jeep to drag trail-clearing equipment behind it. For troublesome alders he employs a weed-whacker or chainsaw and his students sometimes help out. A frisbee disc trail on both sides of the road also has been created and improved upon. But the committee believes those trails could be better planned and routed. A new trail could be created to run between the elementary and middle school, for instance. Some dividing fences can be removed to facilitate their use, and the committee could talk to private landowners about allowing public use of trails that run through or past their property, such as the trail out to Japp (or Japanese) Creek.
Barnwell, with the help of CJ Rae, a National Parks Service educator and trained landscaper, recently had his class create detailed designs of what the outdoor projects could look like. Some of his students gave their classes’ vision for the program planned for the elementary school via a Prezi.com on the Smart Board, and they placed paintings of various design sizes on the walls.
Kindergarten teacher Haugh also has been preparing herself for this for some time. She recently completed her master’s degree on the outdoor habitat proposal and is integrating art and outdoor habitat into the classroom curriculum. Her goal now is to create a course for local teachers on how to do that. Haugh also has created an online format for teachers to share with one another what they are doing outdoors.
“My big passion with the project is the trails,” said Nichols, who loves to hike the trails around the schools and has seen moose, bears and even coyotes while out on them. She takes her high school environmental science and life science students there to learn about old growth and mixed growth trees, and land-cover mapping. She takes her seventh grade class there to do native plant identification. “It’s an incredible, pretty, rich place to have kids walk to in five minutes,” said Nichols.
“I’m really very, very excited and beside myself about this project, and whatever you want to do about these trails, get in touch,” said Marshall. With a better maintained, established trail, and the permission of landowners, the student runners would use the trail to Japanese Creek on a regular basis, he said. The middle school once held annual cross country ski meets before the new building was constructed. Some on the committee would like to see a trail loop made there that could make that possible once again.