Education, Outdoors, Science, Seward Schools

Community Project: Schoolyard Habitat

by Jenn Haugh & Kirstie Lorelei Willean-

Transformation of the Seward Elementary grounds from its original landscaping, when the school first opened in 1990, to an outdoor learning environment was completed in 2016.  Perhaps you were one of the multitudes of dedicated volunteers who shared in the community Schoolyard Habitat Project.  It’s a tale of one person’s dream coming to fruition and yet another story of the strength and commitment our community shares while working together to create a positive and healthy future for the kids.

In 2011, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, one of 560 refuges within the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), reached out to schools on the Kenai Peninsula to apply for Schoolyard Habitat Grants.  While Schoolyard Habitats have been nationwide since 1996, there was a new outreach to involve Alaskan schools in 2011.  With the mission of getting students outdoors to experience nature, the program works with schools to transform school grounds into natural spaces where students will be able to “observe, draw, write, think, and question.”  (USFWS Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide)

The Iditarod Trails in Every Classroom (iTrec) training brings together teachers around the state of Alaska to learn about implementing place-based learning opportunities in schools.  In the spring of 2011, Brenda Duty and Cheryl Anderson of USFWS teleconferenced with the Seward Elementary staff informing them of the available grant funds. After Jenn expressed interest in applying for the grant, Seward Elementary teachers Jenn Haugh and MaryLynn Barnwell were involved in the first iTrec!

The iTrec training encouraged a partnership between the grantee and an established local non-profit organization.  Haugh contacted Matt Gray of the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance (RBCA) seeking a collaborative partner.  RBCA shared Jenn’s enthusiasm in developing a place-based learning project in the Seward Community.  The initial phase of this partnership brought together community members to share ideas and begin the grant application process

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A steering committee was formed, and throughout the fall and winter months of 2012 and 2013 organizational meetings came together and brainstorming sessions were held in classrooms to seek student input.  Local Master Gardeners were also included to share their knowledge of local native plants.  Students remained actively engaged in creating their new learning environment.  Initially, 6th graders created a map of the future habitat gardens.  The RBCA officially became the funding agent and an advisory liaison between Seward Elementary School and USFWS.

Ground-breaking was celebrated on June 6, 2013.  For the following two years, as seasons and weather permitted, the back-breaking work of digging-up 23-year-old existing foliage, turning and enriching soil, removing long-rooted turf, and multitudes of other tasks in redesigning the landscape on the front and south-facing grounds was underway.  Many blistered hands found their way home after hard days of work by local residents.

Several groups volunteered, including many Seward students, Davinci camp kids, a girls’ church group from Anchorage, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, local Girl Scouts, and a volunteer crew from Southeast Alaska Guidance Association (SAGA).  In the fall of 2013, Jenn Haugh and Jason Aigeldinger were hired to co-administer the final year of the grant. With a final surge of dedicated energy, they teamed with more student and parent volunteers to see the Schoolyard Habitat Gardens to completion!

Groups of elementary students joined together, gently planting native plants in predetermined areas during spring 2015. Throughout the summer months, students and their families scheduled themselves to water and tend the new growths, and by fall students were utilizing their new Schoolyard Habitat for a variety of academic endeavors including service learning, plant identification, plant/tree cycle observations, berry picking, poetry integration, and math integration.

Not one to sit on her laurels (so to speak), Jenn Haugh hopes to continue growing the Schoolyard Habitat Project even further.  With a Master’s Degree in Integrating the Arts into the Curriculum, Haugh is in the process of planning a hands-on class for teachers on how to integrate science, the arts, brain-based learning, and the Schoolyard Habitat into their curriculum for students preK through fifth grade in Seward.  Teachers have a great interest in incorporating the gardens and trail systems into their lessons, and additional training will be a springboard.  Haugh’s goal for the 2017-18 school year is to have every classroom doing at least one service project, and utilizing the gardens in at least one unit every year.

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