Chuck DeSorcy of Greenways Land Trust

Willow Creek park renewed with class

Southgate Middle School students team with Greenways Land Trust volunteers to rehabilitate green space, estuary

A group of Southgate Middle School students this year has engaged in math, science, environmental studies, woodwork and physical education.

And that’s just one class.

Through a unique partnership with volunteers from Greenways Land Trust, the students have resurrected the estuary and wetlands along Willow Creek in a year-long project on both sides of Highway 19A near the Ken Forde boat launch.

The project was highlighted in a presentation to the School District 72 board of trustees during their meeting last Tuesday.

“This wouldn’t be possible without our partnership with Greenways Land Trust,” said Erin Nixon, who has led the project with fellow Southgate teacher Aaron O’Shannessy. “They’ve become what we’ve dubbed our faculty of education.”

The Millennium Park project involved both classroom and field instruction and hands-on work at the creek, which had become overrun with invasive species and oil runoff from a nearby parking lot.

“We spent the first couple of weeks focusing on removing those,” said O’Shannessy.

Once the area was cleaned up, the students then replanted the area with native trees and shrubs — 260 plants in all, said Nixon.

“They discovered small shrubs are easily stepped upon and that flagging tape was not enough to mark them,” she said. “So they build trails to protect the biodiversity of the area.”

The trails are made with borders of natural driftwood collected from the nearby beach. With the help of the school’s woodworking instructor, they also made natural benches and seating in gathering spots in the park.

Chuck DeSorcy and Libby King of Greenways helped oversee the project and found willing participants.

“As much as possible, we want to get students out into the green spaces,” said DeSorcy. “It’s not only that they want to go out and walk along the seawalk, but they want to get their hands dirty. They want to be able to put a plant in the ground, watch it grow, put their name on the plant.

“That’s the really important part, the attachment to the space.”

And the project has been more than kids getting out of their classroom to play in nature. The teachers assured the board the project falls within both the school curriculum and the district’s strategic plan emphasizing interest-based learning and collaborative engagement.

Students have researched and built rain gauges and kept detailed graphs to monitor the health of the new plants. Ray Allan of Greenways recently visited the classroom and showed them how to test the pH of the soil and water.

“We’re finding when they’re in the classroom these subjects really come to life for them,” O’Shannessy said of the students. “And we’re finding their behaviour when they’re inside is better, probably because they’ve spent that time outside.”