Falk School creates a hillside outdoor classroom
Pitt is known as an urban university, but students at Falk Laboratory School are working to enhance a small enclave of nature on the sloping hillside that adjoins their school.
In conjunction with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s schoolground habitat enhancement and restoration program (SHERP), Falk students, teachers and families are turning the steep site above University Drive into an outdoor classroom where students not only can learn about science and nature, but also pause to reflect and study in a natural setting.
“Eventually we want the space to be used when they need a spot to read a good book or to make observations for journal entries,” said Lori Wertz, an intermediate teacher and special projects director who is coordinating the work.
Wertz said she has a strong desire to help kids connect with nature. “It was important to me growing up,” she said, adding that children tend to have a natural affinity for the outdoors, but are at risk of losing it if it’s not encouraged.
Wertz said teacher training will benefit as well. While School of Education interns assigned to Falk School will gain experience by using the site for outdoor education, she’s hoping eventually to develop workshops to show other new teachers how to incorporate the outdoors into lessons on science or environmental education.
She and other teachers had been wanting to bring SHERP to the Falk School grounds as long as eight years ago, in order to enhance students’ outdoor studies.
Teachers initially sought to use the green space adjoining the building, but plans to enlarge the school nixed that idea — the expanded school building now sits atop that space.
However, the steep 1.2-acre hillside below the school, albeit inaccessible due to overgrown plants and vines, emerged as a possibility.
“It’s the only green space we have now,” Wertz said, “People want to make it work.”
Students loved the idea, Wertz said, adding that they had a hard time waiting to get started. During the 2008-09 school year, initial planning began. The following year, Audubon naturalists trained teachers and helped students assess the site. Invasive plants were cleared so students could collect data — testing soil, compiling plant inventories and a tree index, and identifying wildlife habitats.
Weekend workdays included Falk family members who cleared trash, removed invasive honeysuckle, grapevine and garlic mustard and cleared a path.
A natural trail emerged beneath the overgrown vines, and a map was created, marking meandering footpaths, major trees and stands of plant life, and identifying areas where seating will be added.
Students helped decide on the kinds of plants they wanted to see and the types of animals they hoped to attract.
As for wildlife, some of the youngest students were hoping for lions or tigers, but learned that their woodland is more amenable to other kinds of creatures. The slope already is home to songbirds, rabbits and groundhogs; neighbors have reported that a gray fox frequents the site.
Red-tailed hawks have been seen, and a peregrine — likely from the nearby Cathedral of Learning nest site — often perches in the schoolground’s large oak.
The site is populated mainly with hardwood trees including locust, oak, maple, elm, box elder, black cherry and hawthorn, as well as some white pine and Eastern hemlock. Wildflowers include star of Bethlehem, goldenrod, wild geranium and woodland buttercup.
“What is already here is really just a treasure,” Wertz said.
Some new plants and shrubs will be added — SHERP requires they all be native varieties. Wertz said planting will begin in fall. New trees will include viburnum, holly, beech, dogwood, ironwood, red maple, nannyberry, redbud, dogwood and spruce. Raspberry, rhododendron, spicebush, serviceberry and a variety of forest and meadow herbaceous plants also will be added.
Wertz said she is trying to ensure all classrooms — from kindergarten to 8th grade — are involved in some way. Some 36 hours of work/class days were completed for the project in 2010 and 90 hours during the 2011 school year.
Older students learned to level trails or took pride in saving trees and shrubs that were being strangled by vines. Some built benches for trailside seating.
Even the youngest students were given hand tools and small rakes so they could help clear a seating area, she said. The going was slow as raking was balanced with inspecting interesting bugs, but that’s all part of the learning.
The process of clearing the trail offered Falk students some benefits beyond experiencing the natural world. Wertz said early in the project, students were dismayed at the amount of trash they found as they cleared pathways.
One entrance to the slope is easily accessible, situated at the rear of the SC parking lot between the school’s basketball court and several University fraternity houses. While it was never determined exactly who was responsible for the litter, the Falk students wrote letters directed at the Pitt student body — expressing their desire to share the site, but also asking them not to trash their outdoor classroom. The response to the letters and to a subsequent project presentation was unanticipated. Not only has the littering abated, Wertz said, but one fraternity is partnering with Falk as part of an adopt-a-school program, and several Pitt students are working to obtain the necessary clearances required to work with the children. Others also have expressed an interest in helping with the project.
Exactly who may use the site remains a question. Recognizing the value of a quiet woodland path, Wertz said the inclination is to share it with the University community. “Our students and University students use the site at different times,” she noted. “The general rule would be that during school hours the site is for Falk students; afterwards it’s okay if University students use it,” she said, adding that the policy could be changed based on trial and error.
While a dedication for the nature trail is planned for next spring, Wertz said the project never will be completed.
“Maintenance is always going to be there,” she said, noting that although Pitt grounds employees may assist after storms or to conduct major pruning, “It’s our project to maintain.”
Given the speed with which invasive plants take over, until a summer maintenance schedule is established, Wertz said she foresees that the start of each school year will be accompanied by efforts to redefine the trails. “That’s part of the learning that goes with it.” Along with maintenance, students will monitor the plantings to see which did well and which didn’t.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” she said.
“We don’t want kids to think of it as an environmental education place, but this is our hillside. We have woods and everything that comes with it.”
Wertz said faculty and staff interested in volunteering for trail work or site maintenance should contact her at email@example.com. Donations in support of the project can be made through the Pitt Annual Fund by specifying the Falk School Education Fund/SHERP project. Additional information on the project is available at www.falkschool.pitt.edu.
—Kimberly K. Barlow