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SPS students get their hands dirty while learning about the environment

Springfield Public School students plant trees that will be sold at native plant sales this spring
Michele Skalicky
Springfield Public School students plant trees that will be sold at native plant sales this spring

The students are in the College and Careers Pathway at Hillcrest High School, which partners with the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks.

On a recent day at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds, just across from Hillcrest High School, students were busy planting trees in large black plastic pots.

"They have Washington hawthorn right now," said Christy Wilder, watershed natives and programs manager at the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, "so they are kind of wetting the soil down first and then, once they get that, then they'll get it in the containers and, so, we kind of work one species at a time."

SPS and Watershed Committee of the Ozarks Partnership

The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks partners with Springfield Public Schools to teach students things like sowing and stratifying seeds, soil mixing, repotting shrubs and seed sorting.

This area, in the northern part of the fairgrounds, has a high tunnel, and it’s where the Watershed Committee’s Native Nursery is located.

The Hillcrest High School juniors working at the fairgrounds this day are in the Environmental & Natural Resource Management pathway, part of the College and Career Academies at the school. It’s a program developed by Springfield Public Schools and the Watershed Committee. Students planted trees with the WCO last year in environmental science. This year they’re taking watershed science.

"And they get to do hands-on management plans, kind of learn the overall goal, so they see kind of the end product," said Wilder.

The trees they potted this day and native wildflowers they start from seed collected by students in theSPS Greener Greenspace program will be sold at native plant sales this spring at the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Proceeds will go back into the program. Extra seeds are donated to the Springfield-Greene County Library’s Heirloom Seed Library.

Springfield Public School students plant trees at the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks' Native Nursery
Michele Skalicky
Springfield Public School students plant trees at the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks' Native Nursery

Wilder said the partnership between SPS and WCO came about when ecosystem restoration was underway at Valley Water Mill Park and more native plants were needed. SPS wanted students in the Academies program to have hands-on experience, so it was a good fit.

What students learn

Students have the chance to see if they might want to pursue a career in environmental science and agriculture. And they can earn three different industry recognized credentials. But there’s a simpler goal, too.

"Honestly, just getting them unplugged, getting them out in the quote, unquote dirt to kind of play with that—something a little different," said Wilder.

Ella Reynolds is a junior at Hillcrest who was enjoying her time outside and away from the classroom on this warm late winter day.

"I'm more of an outdoorsy girl, so I like getting my hands dirty," said Reynolds. "I like being outside."

Her goal is to attend Missouri State University and to pursue a career in conservation. She said being part of the Environmental and Natural Resource Management Pathway has given her a jumpstart on her education.

"It's given a lot of insight into learning different plants and weather patterns and geography," she said, "really just a lot about plants and the environment."

Her classmate, Jenna Meyers, also wants to go into conservation.

"I love nature and all things nature-wise," Meyers said.

Meyers, who also loves plants and getting her hands dirty, said she’s learned many things by being part of this Academies pathway that she can use as she pursues a career.

"I've learned about, like, pollution sources in water. I've learned about water systems," she said. "I've learned about native plants and conservation. I've learned about the importance of, like, taking care of our planet, and our teacher talks about a lot of environmental effects just like casually in class, and I learn a lot from that as well."

Springfield Public School students plant trees in the College and Career Academies program
Michele Skalicky
Springfield Public School students plant trees in the College and Career Academies program

Their Environmental and Natural Resources teacher at Hillcrest, Sharon Blauvelt, said her students will get to put what they’ve learned into practice as they design a native garden for the new Canopy Subdivision in north Springfield.

Even if her students don’t pursue careers in conservation and environmental sciences, she hopes they’ll always remember what they learned in their classes.

"Just to have a better appreciation for the environment to take care of it more, to understand the importance of native plants, not being afraid to go out and buy or make their own little garden, whether that's in buckets or whatever," she said. "They've been really excited about that, like, 'oh, I can grow my own now,' and so a little more confidence and just being outside."

Tyler Whitman is planning to go into the military after he graduates from Hillcrest in 2024. He was busy at the fairgrounds helping with a variety of different tasks.

He said the program has made him more aware of the environment and taking care of our natural areas.

"I've learned a lot about how the environment works," he said, "so, it's kind of made me stop when I see a tin can or something and pick it up, so sometimes I can just walk by the street and just start picking up trash, and it kind of makes me think more about don't throw your trash outside the car window."

For Christy Wilder, it’s rewarding to see the students learn and grow from the time they enter the program and start learning about soil structures and other things to when they start doing hands-on activities to, finally, when they finish their classes.

"Definitely my goal with this is for them to kind of get that experience but then, when they leave, to be able to see it hands-on, whether or not they want to go into this field," she said. "For them to just look back in like 20 or 30 years and say, 'that was probably one of the best things that I ever got to do.'"

Seed money for the Watershed Natives program came from a Collective Impact Grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and the Darr Family Foundation.

Mike Kromrey, the Watershed Committee’s executive director, said the longterm goal is for the program to be fully sustainable.