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High School Principal: ‘This is day one of blazing an original path’

A nearly one-mile wildlife trail will soon wind through about 28 acres of land surrounding Countryside Elementary School, where students can study animals, plants and the meandering Sharps Creek.

As part of their future outdoor learning lab, students and teachers recently began clearing the new path through the woodsy, marshy area outside the Byron Center Public Schools building at 8200 Eastern Ave. SE. The district was approved for a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to create the trail through the designated wetland.

Outdoor lessons for students:

  • Plant and tree identification
  • Studying and measuring erosion of the stream
  • Measuring perimeter and area of raised beds garden
  • Observing organisms in the streams
  • Orienteering

Countryside fourth-graders, Byron Center High School students, volunteers and teachers recently got to work moving sticks and chopping roots. Principal Jolynne Dobson said the trail, to be open in the fall, will enhance learning opportunities spanning every subject.

Students also dug holes at various points on the trail to secure 10 observation stations with display cases for student-created work with information about wildlife and features of the woods.

“This is day one of blazing an original path,” Dobson said.

High School junior Hugh Theil and other members of the high school group TEAM, which stands for Transform, Educate, Apply and Mentor, worked with younger students to clear foliage from the path. Hugh pointed out snake holes and birds to curious fourth-graders.

High school senior Liz Smith works with the fourth-graders
High school senior Liz Smith works with the fourth-graders

“I think being able to connect with nature and get out of the classroom will be really cool for these kids,” Hugh said.

Long-Planned Project Comes to Fruition

When Countryside was built in 2004, plans centered around a farm theme, with the center of the building resembling a silo. The wildlife trail was discussed but, because of the lengthy permit process, put on hold. This year, however, Doug Gallup, the district’s director of facilities, and fourth-grade teacher Dan Volkers decided to move forward with the plan.

The land lends itself to observation of pheasants, deer and foxes, the study of stream erosion and wetlands, plant identification and much more.

Fourth-grader Magnus Salmon works on the trail
Fourth-grader Magnus Salmon works on the trail

“The goal is to tie our curriculum standards to real-life situations,” Volker said.

The trail will be kept as natural as possible, with students being taught to leave light footprints. The entire learning lab, once complete, will include raised garden beds, an outdoor pavilion and a greenhouse.

Fourth-grader Natalie Noordhoek said it’s cool to be able to experience things they study in class.

“It’s going to be really fun coming back and actually seeing it instead of just reading about it.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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