by Mike Knaak
Many students need to hop a bus for a chance to learn in a forest or prairie. But starting next fall, students at Riverview Intermediate School will find the forest right outside the door.
The outdoor classroom is now possible after wooded land west of the school was designated a School Forest by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who will attend Riverview, the current middle school being converted for their classes, will learn in about 60 acres surrounding Sartell-St. Stephen’s three schools along Seventh Street N.
The outdoor classroom effort began a year-and-a-half ago when a team of administrators and teachers visited other schools looking for learning ideas appropriate for intermediate students.
“We visited other districts to get ideas and what we could offer our students while staying true to our traditions,” said Zach Dingmann, intermediate school principal. “Our focus is on community connections, hands-on learning and the environment. We reached out to the DNR and the more we found out, we decided it would be a great fit.”
The staff has written goals for the forest that include an outdoor learning space and maintaining a healthy forest.
“It’s an opportunity to get outside the school walls and tie in standards of classroom learning with hands-on, real world experiences,” Dingmann said.
The school forest presents opportunities beyond the obvious biology and nature lessons. Dingmann said the plan is to involve all disciplines including art and technology. Art students, for example, could draw and design wood duck houses while technology students could explore how to more efficiently maintain the forest.
“There are teachable moments out in nature and things happen,” Dingmann said.
Eventually, school leaders would like to involve parents and community volunteers with activities such as clearing out buckthorn and pruning the trees.
With the DNR’s guidance and support, the district will be able to apply for grants to maintain the forest.
The school forest project is part of the district’s building reconfiguration plan and class reassignment. Now that the new high school is open, more building moves are underway. Third- through fifth-graders will move into the newly named Riverview building with an expected enrollment of about 900. Middle school students will move a few blocks west and be served at the former high school, currently closed for remodeling. In the fall, Oak Ridge Elementary School becomes Oak Ridge Early Learning Center serving students in Pre-K and kindergarten. Pine Meadow Elementary becomes Pine Meadow Primary School serving first- and second-graders.
There are more than 135 designated School Forests in Minnesota. School Forests range from less than one acre to 300 acres, for a total of more than 8,000 acres. The School Forest program was established by law in 1949.
The designated school forest land is part of the original property purchased in 1968 for the district’s first high school.
“This is a super-exciting time,” Dingmann said, “and a great opportunity to encompass a lot of initiatives of what we’re going to be about at Riverview.”