Two decades ago, co-founder Jon Wuerth had a vision to nurture and sustain an experientially-based school environment for “fourth graders who have a passion for natural sciences and being outdoors,” he said. Now, as the coordinator for Academy District 20’s award-winning School in the Woods (SITW), Wuerth has designed the curriculum “to be integrated with students, called naturalists, learning in and about the local Colorado ecosystems, including flora and fauna.”
Enhancing a curriculum designed for children with interest in natural science, the school’s 10 acres in Black Forest are situated in a Section 16 public land site circled by a four-mile walking, running and cycling path open to the public year-round. To make the best use of this natural woodlands setting, SITW has begun work on an extensive nature trail, which will feature plants representative of these Colorado higher altitude life zones: plains, foothills, montane, and subalpine.
Helping develop, plan and design the nature trail are three school volunteers who bring a wealth and diversity of experience: former Master Gardener Deborah Carr, Natural Resources Specialist Melissa McCormick and career educator Bill Barron, who designed and led a summer program during which he and his students built and maintained nature trails for state conservation agencies and constructed Habitat for Humanity homes in Costa Rica.
Carr is helping secure and place plants and trees in their appropriate life zones. For Carr, the trail is the perfect opportunity to “ ... create habitat and ecosystems to support not only plant and animal species, but also to encourage (participants) to better understand their own connection and sense of place along ... the Colorado Front Range.” A self-professed “plant nerd,” Carr aims to involve students and parents in learning how to grow the plants, as well as help with site preparation and preservation.
With her extensive experience in trail construction and maintenance, McCormick is leading student and volunteer workers. She said she envisions the trail as a “wonderland of discovery” and a successful ecosystem that can “introduce students to species they may not have witnessed firsthand, helping them appreciate the need for diversity (in plant life).” McCormick also said she hopes including accessible features in the new trail system “will enhance the experience for all users, as well as provide multi-sensory opportunities for individuals who may not have full use of all their senses.”
An architect of experiential classrooms, Barron will design a trail brochure, implement a teacher-guided curriculum, assist with the plans for the school’s new informational kiosk being built as an Eagle Scout project, and create guide signposts identifying facts about the trail’s indigenous plants, animals and trees.
“Once established with one of the trails being designed as a handicap-accessible trail and signs with Braille symbols, the SITW nature trail system will first operate as an essential outside-the-walls learning environment for our fourth graders,” Barron said.
Barron also said the trail system can serve as an environmental classroom for schools and organizations seeking to incorporate real-life education. “Third, it can serve as a foundation for educating those who live in Black Forest, so they can recognize, celebrate and nurture that which is indigenous to our area,” he said.
Wuerth echoed that the nature trail system at the school will be a valuable asset for the school, district and surrounding community.
“It is important for our naturalists to learn about their local natural world community,” Wuerth said.
The community is invited to help finish the new nature trail at School in the Woods: students and teachers can engage in class projects and pursue classroom connections; and parents and volunteers can help construct and maintain the site, along with resources and knowledge to support the trail through public relations and fundraising. All can work together on planting days, maintenance and watering. Contact Wuerth at email@example.com for more information on potential work days.
There are also ongoing projects like building and designing the trail in a way that it blends into the landscape with rocks, trail bends, and placement of the plantings.
“In the long term, students and community members can continue to support the trail by first enjoying, then treating the area with respect and finally, by reporting any issues requiring maintenance,” McCormick said.