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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SACRAMENTO FWO: Bridging the Way to Nature From the Classroom

Region 8, January 22, 2014
Planting area before project installation
Planting area before project installation - Photo Credit: n/a
California Conservation Corp members installing the path
California Conservation Corp members installing the path - Photo Credit: n/a
Feldheim (lt) and Folks (rt) are ready to finish planting
Feldheim (lt) and Folks (rt) are ready to finish planting - Photo Credit: n/a

By Karleen Vollherbst

Peter Folks, a third grade teacher, is an obvious leader at Bridgeway Island K-8 School. Walking through the West Sacramento, California campus with him is like walking through a small town with the mayor. Everyone smiles at you, wants to say hello, and tells you a piece of news. 

Folks is not just a leader at his school, he is also a leader for the school district and the state, using cutting edge classroom technology to help improve student learning. When you walk into his classroom you can’t miss the giant big screen TV that is hooked up to the computer at his desk and tablets the students use to work. Yet in the midst of all the technology, Folks found that something critical was missing from his classroom in order to fully engage his students. He realized that he also needed a classroom fully equipped with native plants and wildlife that the students could use to study outside. A place where students could see, hear, smell, and touch the things they were learning about and tested on through their indoor screen time.

Bridgeway Island School is located in what was once the flood plain of the Sacramento River, lush with grasses and shrubs, birds and amphibians. Now the schoolyard is made up of classroom corridors mingled with bright green lawn. There is not much wildlife to be seen, just the occasional bird or bug passing by. This wasn’t acceptable to biologist and neighbor, Cliff Feldheim. He has spent years working with Folks’ third graders to help teach students about what once stood on their schoolyard. Feldheim teaches them about local wildlife and leads field trips to nearby wetlands to observe it. Walking around campus with Feldheim is no less glamorous than walking around with Folks. As soon as he’s spotted on campus, students run up to offer a high five and share the latest wildlife siting. Since their partnership began Feldheim and Folks dreamt of someday turning some of the lawn in Bridgeway Island’s schoolyard into native habitat.

Last year, the stars began to align for them. The sustained volunteer efforts of Feldheim and the teaching commitments of Folks allowed administration to trust and support a new project with them at the helm. With momentum in their favor the pair set forth to make their dream come true. However, they knew they couldn’t do it alone. They contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Schoolyard Habitat Program to help provide technical expertise and funding. They sent teachers to the Program’s summer institute to learn how to connect the new habitat to the school’s curriculum. They also recruited volunteers from the local church to help prepare the site and California Conservation Corp members spent two weekends volunteering at the school to help remove the existing grass and lay down an ADA path.

This fall with project planning and site preparations behind them, Bridgeway Island K-8 School began to plant their first Schoolyard Habitat Project. In November, over 100 students, family members and neighbors came out after school to help kick start planting by putting in almost 50 trees and shrubs. In December, Service staff helped 100 third graders plant flowers and grasses and the schools honor society students added to the effort, putting in more plants, watering, and spreading seed for the project. Finally, to ring in the New Year, students and their families spent a day of their winter vacation filling in the area with more native grasses.

In total, over 1000 plants were planted by hundreds of helpers in an effort to bring wildlife habitat back to life at Bridgeway Island School. The growth is just beginning, but birds and butterflies have already found 5000 square feet of new habitat they can now call home.

Thanks to dedicated people like Peter Folks, Cliff Feldheim and the hundreds of students and volunteers who literally pitched in, the Service's Schoolyard Habitat Program is helping to bridge the way to nature from the classroom.

Karleen Vollherbst is the schoolyard habitat coordinator at the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office in Sacramento, California.

Contact Info: Karleen Vollherbst, 916-478-9247, karleen_vollherbst@fws.gov