On a brisk fall day, if you walk around the new Tustumena Elementary School’s cross country trails will find native aspen, funky fungi and multi-colored berries galore — a great outdoor educational experience.
But when the snow flies and the school’s cross-country skiing club begins in January, the cleared space will provide a great spot for students, as well as community members, to ski.
According to Douglas Hayman, Tustumena principal, in 2011 the school received a grant in the amount of $1,300 from multiple sources, including U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Forest Service, Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District and community partners. The grant made it possible for the school to make needed improvements to the existing trail system. The improvements include an extended cross-country ski trail system, an area for a 5,000 square foot tree nursery, moose enclosures and birdhouses along the trail.
Dan Funk, the Schoolyard Habitat Program Coordinator for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, said he started working with the school on the project in August 2012.
Funk explained a schoolyard habitat is an improvement to school grounds or nearby lands that makes them more hospitable for native wildlife while providing an accessible place outdoors for children to learn about and connect with nature on a daily basis. The project is a Fish and Wildlife Service project, administered by the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.
A similar project is in the work for Sterling Elementary.
Dave Michael is a fourth-grade teacher at the school and has coached the six-week intramural cross-country ski program for the past 16 seasons.
Michael competed as a member of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team from 1980 to 1982, later competing as a biathlete in 1984 and 1985. He said his passion for the sport got him involved in working with and coaching kids, taking him in the direction of education.
“It’s been a rewarding career,” he said. “Kids are incredible people, and I still enjoy their enthusiasm.”
Michael said he and Marina Bosick, a second-grade teacher, introduced the concept of the schoolyard habitat.
“I’ve always thought Tustumena’s campus and location have made it a hidden gem as it’s easy to supplement the classroom with added outdoor experiences,” he said.
Michael said the schoolyard habitat program has allowed for an expansion of the trail system from approximately 2 to a current 3.5-kilometer trail.
“While this may not see like a lot, we were able to have a logging company come in and thin out dead standing beetle kill trees over about six acres so that the trails have improved viewing. We’re planning an outdoor classroom setting with a covered seating area and a small amphitheater, which will really help with environmental studies,” Michael said.
The trails were also made wider during the project, making them easier to groom with a donated snowmachine. Michael said the trails can be interconnected in various directions to create different ski courses. The cross-country ski season begins in January for the school’s fourth- through sixth-graders. Approximately 60 students are involved in the program.
“It’s a very enjoyable and safe environment for intermediate-level students to lean to enjoy skiing, winter and the Alaskan outdoors,” he said.
Bosick said she became involved in the project in the beginning when her friend from the board of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District made her aware of the available grant.
“That was when I first discovered that the property the school was on was such a large parcel of land. So I said ‘yes, this is something our school should be a part of,’” she said.
She brought the available grant to the attention of the Tustumena staff and it became a goal. Bosick said the staff then began brainstorming a wish list for the project, and looked at their individual curriculums to come up with the things that they would like to see in the habitat that would support teaching the lessons that addressed the prescribed standards.
“In second grade we focus on physical characteristics and traits of plants. The trail provides a lot of opportunity to do this,” Bosick said.
The class will also incorporate a native plant and vegetable garden beginning in the spring, which Bosick said will allow her students to get out and get hands-on learning.
So far this year, Bosick’s class has also walked the trail to catalogue the kinds of trees and plants, as well as watch for birds and other wildlife. Last year her class, along with retired state biologist, Fritz Kraus, built 20 birdhouses which can be viewed from the trail system.
Sara J. Hardan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.