Effort aims to re-open Birchwood's outdoor classroom
NISKAYUNA Birchwood Elementary School students, teachers and parents hope to give new life to a dormant outdoor classroom.
Nearly 100 people turned out for a Nature Exploration Event and Nature Park Rally held at the school last Friday to help draw attention to the project to rebuild the classroom and nature trail in the woods behind the school.
Former principal Stephen Israel opened the Nature Park in 1959. Both the trail and classroom were actively used, and at one point there was also a greenhouse and aquarium.
Kim McClive-Reed, webmaster for the school’s PTO, said she stumbled onto the story about the nature park when she was looking for old articles on another subject.
“We have no idea of why nobody has been back here since 2005,” she said.
School officials believed it would be a good time to reactivate the classroom to help beef up the science curriculum.
Birchwood PTO Co-President Deb Foley said new tougher curriculum standards called the Common Core require students to read more nonfiction texts. “It was a perfect fit,” she said.
The group is seeking a $50,000 grant from Clorox as part of the company’s A Bright Future competition.
“We heard about the Clorox grant, and that just catapulted us into action,” Foley said.
If Birchwood is awarded the grant, McClive-Reed said school officials hope to get tablet computers, which the students would be able to bring with them out on the trail to take pictures and look up information about what they are finding.
School officials would like to add a solar-powered greenhouse, vegetable gardens, a butterfly garden and rainwater harvest and compost systems.
“The possibilities are kind of endless,” Clive-Reed said.
Birchwood also is involving the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Foley suggested that maybe a scout could work to repair a portion of the trail for an Eagle Scout or Gold Award project.
“It’s a school project, but it also reaches out into the community,” she said.
An organization called Friends of Niskayuna Trail is interested in helping to make it safer.
Niskayuna currently ranks 153rd out of about 1,000 schools in the “explore” category, where more projects are competing, Foley said. Voting will continue through Dec. 19.
If Birchwood doesn’t win the $50,000, Foley said she hopes they can get a $25,000 merit grant.
At Friday’s event, McClive-Reed led children on a brief tour of the trail, which hasn’t been maintained over the years and has become overgrown in sections.
She said the area is rich in different types of habitat, including deciduous forest and wetlands. “You get the best of two worlds,” she said. “We have several invasive species and many of them are beautiful, unfortunately.”
Species of trees include sugar maple, birch, spruce, oak, hickory, alder, ash, aspen and sycamore, according to McClive-Reed.
“It will be gorgeous in the spring,” she said.
Some tree limbs are strewn across the path of the trail. “This is part of what we need to clean out,” she said.
Plant life is also abundant, including cattails, sedge and winterberry.
Organizers also want to open up an unused section of the woods.
“On the far side of the park are the most beautiful ferns you have ever seen,” she said.
She pointed to the remnants of a weir, with a missing gate that diverted water into a man-made pond.
In addition, an old treehouse must be dismantled. While it would have been fun for kids, it is not safe and is a major liability, she said. The outdoor classroom itself, which consists of some stone benches, is in pretty decent shape.
“It was made with some big concrete chunks, probably with some rebar in the middle,” she said.
There are also large sedimentary rocks, she said.
The trail is separated by a creek, but there is no way to cross to another area where it continues, according to McClive-Reed.
In addition to taking a tour, students at the event got to look at reptiles from Reptile Adventure and learn about gardening. Exhibitors included the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Whispering Willow Wild Care, Reptile Adventure and Bentley Seed.
Fifth-grader Abby Apkarian, 10, was trying to place a plant in a soda bottle to learn about hydroponics. “You have to water it when you get home,” she said.
James Nuqui, 11, said he likes the idea of improving the trail.
“I think this is a really good opportunity for Birchwood to get a greenhouse. I think it would teach a lot of kids about how plants grow,” she said.
“I think it will be really cool to have at our school,” said 8-year-old third-grader Sophia Boler.