School a natural for environmental studies

Marley Smith, left, and Catie Lake, first-graders at Evans Valley Elementary School, study insect larvae they found in Pleasant Creek.Bob Pennell

WIMER — Evans Valley Elementary School Principal Jane McAlvage has a vision for her little country school. She wants to provide a huge opportunity for students from all over the Rogue Valley to learn about birds and bees and flowers and trees in a natural environment.

"The school is more than just this little old building up here on the hill," McAlvage said. "What we have here is a vision."

In addition to the 8 acres around the school buildings and playground area, there's more than 20 acres of forests and meadows, and even some frontage along Pleasant Creek. The site provides a perfect opportunity for learning about ecological history, watershed management, tree identification, native plant uses and wildlife studies, McAlvage said.

"How many other kids have deer walk by their classroom window, or a red-tailed hawk sitting on a (nearby) tree?" she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, students shrieked and giggled in their outdoor classroom as they learned about predator/prey cycles, looked at bugs in the creek, and watched a demonstration by members of Jackson County Search and Rescue.

At the end of their lesson, they laughed and chattered excitedly as they trooped up a dirt path to the old school. At the back of the line came a woman wearing the biggest smile of all — LeeAnn Mikkelson from the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, now back at her old school as a teacher.

Mikkelson, who works with the college of forestry's Oregon Natural Resources Education Program, is helping teachers learn how to integrate the study of nature into their state-mandated curriculum.

"We want to help them include (the nature-oriented lessons) in what they're already doing," she said. "We help them put it into a meaningful context for learning."

Mikkelson began training the Evans Valley staff in outdoor education in January 2007. From following the spawning habits of salmon to the life cycle of a frog to how the little acorn becomes a mighty oak, the kids are living in the land of show and tell, she said.

"This is the perfect venue," she said. "It would be a shame to let all this nature go to waste."

Back in the gym, the kids performed skits about what they learned at the six different nature stations they visited. One group rapped about water. "H2O is what we drink," they chanted. "It evaporates from the sky. And ends up in our sink."

Jay Segura, 11, sported a cotton beard as he narrated his group's ode to an acorn.

"I think (the outdoor program) is really fun," he said later. "It's a better way for teachers to help us learn. It's a lot better than sitting in a classroom."

McAlvage views the opportunity to restore the woodlands around the school to health as something good for the environment, and good fodder for outdoor education.

It also provides an opportunity for community involvement.

Max Bennett, OSU extension forester for Jackson and Josephine counties, and Gary Clarida, a Wimer resident, are making a series of trails throughout the woodland areas. Work crews from the Job Council are helping build the trails.

The goal is to create a trail system that would be suitable for cross-country running meets and community recreation, she said.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for our valley and for our state," she said. "We're right at the cusp of all our plans to take this property and restore it, and study how it progresses."

McAlvage has experience with projects that combine forests and schools. She and her students enjoyed the 2-mile fitness trail (this sentence has been clarified) in the Willamette National Forest when she worked at Oakridge School. The Warrea Trail was "something everybody in the community could use," she said.

Locally, McAlvage brought a group from Medford's Kids Unlimited youth program to Evans Valley Elementary for a five-day retreat. Many of the youngsters live in high-density, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, she said.

"Their first day out in the country had many of them feeling very uneasy," she said. "By the second day they were relaxing a bit. By the last day we turned the sprinklers on and had a country-style water park. And they had a blast."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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