A story of student-centered leadership

By Andy Muntz | Oct 09, 2013

It had to happen sooner or later, says Sue Idso, fifth grade teacher at Mukilteo Elementary. After all, progress needs space and the land next to the playgrounds at her school was no exception.

In spring of 2012, an entire forest that was just past the northern playground’s chain-link fence was leveled within the span of one weekend. And, in place of the trees, there soon arrived bulldozers to dig and scrape the land in preparation for a new housing development.

Idso said what happened next is a perfect “lemons to lemonade” student-centered leadership success story.

The outrage over the clear-cut motivated a few students to circulate a petition that sought school district permission to replant trees along the fence line, effectively screening out the devastation on the other side of the fence.

It seemed like a good idea at first, but the logistics of replanting even a simple border of trees next to the playground presented insurmountable challenges.

How would the young trees be protected from flying balls and children at play? How would the young trees be watered during the summer?

In response, the school’s representative government of fourth and fifth graders took a closer look at the challenge in search of a different solution.

The SOAR senators had already been working to improve environmental awareness indoors by reducing waste and increasing recycling at lunch in the first year of their MEco Challenge, an effort that reduced the average number of lunch garbage bags from 12 in January to two in May.

They felt that working outdoors to continue improving the environment was a natural next move.

The students called on expert help from Ryan Williams of the Snohomish County Conservation District and came up with a better solution to the issue of the neighboring housing development.

Instead of planting a row of trees, they would replant an overgrown 1.88 acres of district property that is to the northwest of the playground and adjacent to the clear cut.

As a bonus, that area of the campus would then become a perfect place for an outdoor classroom, where students could study and appreciate nature.

Then, synergy took over.

First, a donation was made by the Conservation District and EarthCorps volunteers freed several trees from choking ivy and removed a hillside of blackberry brambles.

Next, Mukilteo Elementary students potted native trees and watched them and other bushes leaf out in the school’s atriums while bulldozers continued their work next door.

That summer, 26 parents and staff members showed up for a work party that cut about half of the perimeter and produced a winding trail through the middle of the forest. Later, another 10 volunteers, including five students, trimmed more ivy and brambles.

Mukilteo Elementary alumni also have become involved. Jack McManis, now an Eagle Scout candidate, is planning to build a bird blind in the new forest where students could observe birds and other wildlife.

Three other Boy Scouts have planned projects in the future classroom: Liam Schissler will refine the trail, Eric Wills will build seating in the amphitheater and Austin Szoke has proposed building bat boxes in the space.

Work continues this fall with the goal to have the MEco Outdoor Classroom available for everything from observations to hands-on science exploration and art lessons by next spring.

What started as a reaction to a clear cut, Idso said, has evolved into a win-win for all.

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