By Carlos Dabu
Picture yourself as a Conservation Corps crew member coming into work at good ole’ Hamm’s, not fully knowing what your project for the day will be. You’re anticipating some heavy sawing of green ash or additional removal of your best friend, Buckthorn (Rhamnus Cathartica). To your surprise, your crew was assigned to do trail maintenance at Pine Bend Elementary, a School Forest institution. A place you have never heard of, but will soon adore and want to return to.
School Forests are educational institutions that have a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to foster enhanced education, combining traditional classroom subjects with the outdoors. The goal is for students to excel academically but to also be engaged in their learning. Students have the opportunity of outdoor lessons, giving them real-life experiences to go along with their studies.
Pine Bend Elementary was my first experience at a School Forest institution. Located in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., this school currently enrolls approximately 625 students with 50 teachers and support staff. It was first opened in 1958, closed in the 70s due to low enrollment and later reopened in the early 90s, becoming a School Forest institution in 1993.
Your corps truck pulls into the parking lot and childhood memories flood your head; kids running around carefree as can be, and you know the day will be magical. On Wednesday April 8, my crew experienced these same emotions, not knowing how much we would want to come back as soon as we left.
Throughout the day we worked with our project hosts, Trudy Weise and Kelly Darrow, the former being Pine Bend’s school forest coordinator. Very enthusiastic and inspiring individuals who wanted to better utilize the school’s property as an experiential learning environment. Our job was to clean up the outdoor amphitheater and widen the trails to make them more accessible and appealing for other teachers to use. While working, it was not hard for the four of us to feel envious of the learning environment these kids have at their doorstep.
Looking ahead, Trudy and Kelly want to extend their current trail down to a pond and build a bridge on it. They believe that it would further enhance Pine Bend’s ability to bring real-life experiences to supplement students’ traditional classroom work.
With goals like the pond trail expansion and the right people steering the charge, Pine Bend Elementary will continue to supply students with opportunities to learn in a unique setting for generations to come, fostering a stronger sense of appreciation and awareness of the natural resources before all of us.