A movement to restore the Perry Elementary School Nature Area is gaining momentum through the efforts of third grade teachers Terra Webb and Ali Tibbles.
The outdoor classroom dates from the school’s founding in 1991, but periods of disuse have sometimes reduced it to little more than a trash heap, a situation Webb and Tibbles are determined to reverse.
Students only need to be exposed to the shaded paths and grassy wetlands for their interest to kindle, Webb said.
"Our students are very enthusiastic about the nature area," she said. "It was their curiosity and questions that led to someone from the Dallas County Conservation Board coming and discussing the area’s geology and ecology and someone from the Perry Historic Preservation Commission discussing the history of this piece of land."
Located on the extreme eastern edge of the school grounds, with Wiese Park to the south and 16th Street to the east, the land was formerly used by the Milwaukee Railroad and is still littered just below the surface of the ground with bricks, spikes, ties and similar industrial-age junk.
"Finding these things made the kids curious about what was here before the grass and trees. It became a kind of archeological site that helped them grasp in a very concrete way some of the ideas they learn in their science or social studies classes," Webb said.
Webb, in her seventh year at Perry Elementary, has taken her students to the area for several years and set up a monarch way station. The classes planted milkweeds and nectarous flowers the butterflies need in order to survive their annual migration from the northern US and Canada to their winter home in Michoacan, Mexico, Webb explained.
The widespread use by farmers of the herbicide Roundup has destroyed vast regions of monarch feeding grounds and significantly reduced their population.
This summer Tibbles and Webb cleared and restored another section of the area as part of an enrichment exercise for students in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) Program.
After clearing the path leading through the area, the group planted various kinds of wildflowers, another cross-curricular activity that brought together in a concrete, hands-on way ideas learned in several classes.
Future plans for the Elementary Nature Area include further monarch tagging and a geocache, an outdoor activity that combines hide and seek with orienteering.
According to Sue Leslie, one of five retired Perry Elementary School teachers involved in the original planning of the nature area, things were "more flexible" when they began the outdoor classroom.
"Back then a teacher could take the kids out there for an afternoon without thinking about it, but now they are all so overwhelmed with high-stakes testing and No Child Left behind that they can’t," she said.
"But money is the big problem," Leslie said.
The nature area has attracted some grant money over the years, thanks to the efforts of Leslie and others. A grant from the Rural Education Achievement Program brought in some funding in the 1990s, and a $4,700 grant from Lowe’s Home Improvement in 2007 made possible the purchase of tools and supplies and the three large oak trees now standing at the entrance of the area.
The Elementary Nature Area currently receives no funding from the school, so Webb and Tibbles have paid for many of the tools and supplies the students use. They have applied for a grant from the Bock Family Foundation in order to help sustain their modest efforts.