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A Spruced-up Forest: New look for Horace May's school forest

BEMIDJI--A longstanding "school forest" and trail system at Horace May Elementary received a facelift last week. Beyond sprucing up the trails in general, school leaders erected new signs throughout the forest's trail system and have scheduled a ...

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Kate Pearson, second grader teacher at Horace May Elementary School, points out the different areas of the school forest Thursday. New educations signs were recently installed throughout the forest. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI-A longstanding "school forest" and trail system at Horace May Elementary received a facelift last week.

Beyond sprucing up the trails in general, school leaders erected new signs throughout the forest's trail system and have scheduled a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday to commemorate the occasion. The signs will tell students and other trail users about nearby trail features and wildlife, and tie in science, history, mapping, and math concepts, schools staff said.

"(The old signs) didn't have as much detail to them as these new signs have," said Kate Pearson, a second grade teacher at the school. "They were just trail markers. Now, these are curriculum pieces."

The forest is near the junction of four distinct biogeographical "provinces"-two kinds of parkland and two kinds of forest-and Horace May students have spent time planting trees, removing non-native vegetation, and maintaining the 1.25 miles of trail. School staff call it a "diversity trail" because it reflects the differences in those four provinces.

"They walk from one to the other and there's a distinct change," Pearson said.

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As one trail winds into a boreal forest, the landscape gives way to looming pine trees.

"It's going to feel darker, colder, more dense," Pearson said as she and other school staff trudged along the path last week, trimming trees and making jokes as they went.

The first sign is at the trailhead, near an amphitheater/outdoor classroom built there last year. The sign will include a map of the trail, list donors who helped fund the project, outline "trail etiquette," and give a short history of the trail system itself and its vision and purpose. A total of 14 more signs are peppered throughout the trail, each specific to the immediate area in which it's installed, detailing which province the trail user is in, special features nearby, and so on.

An otherwise unassuming patch of land, for instance, is surrounded by a wooden fence that feels out of place at first glance. A nearby sign explains that the small plot is actually a massive anthill, teeming with life and activity underneath its surface.

"Most of our kids are rural kids, and it gives them a real opportunity to have an outdoor educational setting," said Jon Shorter, a fourth grade teacher at Horace May. "It's a chance to make those educational connections with the animals, with the plants, the seasons, the terrain-everything that we have right here in this little 50-acre patch of woods. It's pretty amazing. It's a wonderful opportunity."

The forest has been used as a teaching tool since the school opened in 1972, Pearson said. The trails were installed some 30 years ago after a group of teachers and parents got together to come up with a formalized long-range plan for it.

"Our whole focus was this natural heritage restoration project," Pearson said.

The trail is used year-round: students sometimes don snowshoes to hike through the wilderness, and its routinely used by local cross country skiing teams.

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"For any students that walk out there...certainly they're learning about the natural world around them. They're learning about where their place in the world at that moment, as they look at the map and see a compass rose and get a sense of where they are in space in the world," Pearson said.

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A new educational sign describes the ant hill area located in the school forest at Horace May Elementary School. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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