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DNR touts its school forest success rate

A tree cutter slices up a Norway pine in a thinning operation at the Frazee-Vergas School Forest in 2009. The DNR thinned about 18 acres to promote the growth of the remaining trees. Photo by - Brian Basham

What kid doesn't love the freedom to run outside, explore nature and learn hands-on? What better way to combine all that and more into learning outdoors than a school forest?

"It's a memorable experience," Frazee-Vergas teacher Heidi Graham said of her students being able to utilize the school forest. "Kids just naturally love being in the woods. Just the beauty of it; it is gorgeous back there."

As one of the state's biggest accomplishments for last year, Gov. Mark Dayton highlighted the growth of school forest programs in schools.

The DNR's school forest program's goal is to get kids outside and is designed to help schools establish and maintain school forests for education.

"The key is empowering teachers to provide outdoor experiences that are far more engaging and based in real-world applications," said Amy Kay Kerber, the DNR school forest manager.

Frazee-Vergas School is one example of the 120 Minnesota schools with a designated school forest.

"The appreciation of getting out of the classroom and teaching about science in its natural environment," Graham said is one more benefit to a school having land like this.

The 120-acre piece of land is located just east of where Highway 59 and Highway 29 intersect a few miles north of Frazee on Wannigan Road.

One of the people instrumental on getting the forest where it is today -- and helping maintain it as well -- is former teacher Woody Blasing.

He said that as he understands it, the land was tax-forfeited land, and in the 1960s, the school acquired the land to be used for educational purposes.

"For quite a few years, the ag department did quite a lot out there, planting trees and that kind of stuff, using it more as a forestry study," Blasing said.

Then in the mid to late 1990s, Blasing submitted a grant and received $16,000 that was used for clearing trails.

He said former principal Wilma Hanson was also active, getting interpretive and trail signage in place.

"He and Wilma Hanson were very progressive," Graham said. "They did just tremendous amounts there."

Ace Construction -- which is made up of mainly Frazee teachers -- donated their time to build a picnic shelter. Steel-Wood Supply donated the materials.

"We just kept developing trails," he said of the progress. "We made three little classroom stations, like little amphitheaters, and then I built a couple other little shelters for if it's nasty weather, the kids could get under there for classes."

Every fall, Graham's sixth-grade science students become experts in a certain plant or animal. They then are stationed throughout the forest, and the rest of the elementary students take a guided walk through the forest, learning along the way about each animal or plant from the older students.

"They teach a lot about the relationships between the plants and the animals," she added.

Blasing started the project, and Graham took over when Blasing retired.

"The kids really respond to the opportunity to be the teachers," Graham said. "It teaches them a valuable lesson about behavior and how to give a good presentation and lifelong things they will always remember. That's always one of the high points of the year."

"It's really good for those kids because you learn a lot more by teaching somebody than by listening. I know that for a fact," Blasing said.

Graham said the students and teachers don't get to utilize the forest as much as they would like though. She said that when the district had more leeway and more time, the students got to spend more time in the woods, even sledding in the winter.

"We like to take them out there for reward times. We're trying to get geocaching out there now," Graham said.

She said she would also like to get a grant to purchase cross-country skis for students to use in the woods.

There are 120 Minnesota schools that have designated a school forest and use them to teach a variety of lessons: poetry, drawing and art, math, geology and soil studies, geocaching, digital photography, water quality studies, outdoor measurements, wildlife and habitat studies and American Indian and Minnesota history.

Activities are not designed to be add-ons. Instead, school forest staff help teachers replace indoor lessons with more appropriate outdoor lessons in existing school curricula.

The DNR's school forest program was awarded a grant to expand the program and school forest sites through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. The grant ends June 30.

"My husband still talks about how with forestry he went out there and planted the trees that are out there now," Graham said. "It's kind of interesting, a tie to the past."

From the agriculture classes and forestry teams building the forest with plantings, to sixth-graders becoming plant, animal and bird experts and teachers, the forest has shown its benefits to all involved.

"There's a lot of valuable things there. I just wish there was more time," Graham said. "If there's one thing I'd like to change, it's that there was more time out there."

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.