Superintendent News

About a month ago, I wrote a column that addressed some of the staffing concerns at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.  U.S. Fish & Wildlife personnel play an extremely important role in the award-winning Prairie Science Classroom environmental education program.  Since those staffing issues became public, a number of community members advocated for the Prairie Science Class and the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in general.  

I have been engaged in productive conversations with Neil Powers, Project Leader of the Prairie Wetlands Management District and the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (PWLC) and Will Meeks, Regional Director of the Midwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  I can state, without reservation, that the Prairie Science Class is both highly respected and valued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  They are working through some short-term staffing challenges.  Solutions will take time.  

In the short-term, Neil Powers stated the following, “Our Regional Office has decided to fill two positions at the PWLC, an education specialist and the center director position.  We have started the recruitment process and hope to have these positions filled before school starts this fall.”  

Both have expressed enthusiastic interest in exploring a pedestrian tunnel that would connect the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center to the new school.  This would be similar to the concept under #210 on the east side of town.  Such a project would require the appropriation of federal dollars and also approval with MNDOT, but it is highly encouraging to see the level of interest in the project.  It would provide a whole new level of accessibility to the PWLC for both the school and neighborhood.

The adjacency of the 29-acre parcel to the PWLC was a huge factor in the district’s decision to purchase it.  Beyond that, the parcel framed the grade level configuration of the school because it lent itself so beautifully to the Prairie Science Class.  The location would eliminate much of the 35-40 minute travel time to and from the PWLC that takes place daily.  Those lost instructional minutes add up over the course of a school year.  It is roughly equivalent to losing between 14 and 19 school days during a year.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to reclaim much of that lost instructional time?

Why is the award-winning Prairie Science Class so important to the district?  Outdoor education has been shown through numerous research studies to benefit students both academically and socio-emotionally.  The experience promotes student well-being.  Let’s take a look at the research findings first.  

A systematic review of 147 original research studies conducted between 2000 and 2020 concluded the following:  Nature-specific outdoor learning has measurable socio-emotional, academic and wellbeing benefits, and should be incorporated into every child's school experience with reference to their local context.

From the Harvard Graduate School of Education:  “We know that outdoor learning accelerates learning itself, and Research has shown that outdoor learning can have huge benefits on student mental health and academic performance. Students are often calmer and better able to focus when learning in nature, and teachers have reported better behavior and social interactions with fewer disciplinary issues.”

I enjoy research findings, but I also find great value in anecdotal evidence.  These are quotes from our students.  I didn’t cherry-pick, I took the first six student comments that were shared with me.   

  1.  “I believe the prairie has helped me mature and love the outdoors much more.  I have become more patient.  I loved learning and identifying animals and filling my mind with facts.”
  2.  “Coming to the PSC was a life changer for me.  I was one of those kids that barely knew about the outdoors.  Now I’m so much more aware of things around me.  I love this place, and I hope it loves me.”
  3.  “The prairie has changed me in so many ways.  I pay attention to things and notice things I definitely wouldn’t have noticed before.  At the prairie I am different, and I like the difference the prairie has made in my life.  It has made an imprint on my life that will never go away.”
  4. “I see the world differently than I did before.  I look at how the seasons change and the world around me.”
  5.  “I used to be nature blind, but now that I go to the prairie I’m always looking around.  I used to ignore all the amazing sights around me.  Now I’m always looking for things.  It opened my eyes and heart to so much more.”
  6. “I used to just take nature for granted.  Being a PSC student has helped me connect with nature more.  This is a year I will never forget.”

What do parents say about the program?  The following comments came directly from our students’ parents and guardians:  

  1. “I have seen enthusiasm, confidence and a desire to share her daily experiences, a desire to leave the environment better than she found it or just as it was.”
  2. “I have noticed my child is more attentive when she comes out here.  
  3. “I love the way he sees the beauty in everything around him: that he can pause, reflect and enjoy creation.  Being in nature is a great way to exhale from the business of life.”
  4. “He seems much happier after spending time outside.”
  5. “I think her experiences at the PSC will make her a more well rounded adult.”
  6. “I have noticed, as this year progressed, how much he has commented about nature as we go about our day.  That makes me happy because nature is such a gift and it is wonderful to hear kids talk about it and be excited about it!”
  7.  “She remarked this year that “science makes sense to me at the prairie.”  I thought that was a powerful statement and really underscores the mission of this special school.”
  8.  “She has learned and grown in her love of nature.  She has become more confident throughout the year.  She has become more of a leader.  She has been able to share her knowledge and love for nature with her family.  She has gained a new appreciation for conservation and environmental stewardship.  The PSC has had a tremendous impact on the growth of our daughter, and the PWLC is a huge asset to this community and region.” 
  9. “I believe that the PSC experience has triggered and unlocked some of her amazing potential and interest in furthering these areas!  She is such an inquisitive child, and for that sense of wonder and questioning to be encouraged is wonderful and appreciated.”

Academically, a profound example of the impact of outdoor, environmental education was occurring just before the pandemic.  The following are MCA two-year proficiency rates of 5th grade students who had attended the Prairie Science Class for two years:  Reading:  79.17 % and 84.90%; Math:  68.08%; and 69.23% and Science:  91.84% and 90.00%.  These results were 10 - 25 percentage points higher than students who did not participate in outdoor education.  

The proposed 3rd-5th grade school, with its adjacency to the PWLC and likelihood of a pedestrian tunnel connecting the two campuses would recapture lost instructional time, provide greater accessibility to an educational model that has been demonstrated through numerous research studies to support academic performance and increase student socio-emotional health and well-being.