- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

GRANGER, Ind. (AP) - When Prairie Vista Elementary opened in 1989, there was no Internet or Xbox and the childhood obesity rate was less than half what it is now.

The new Penn-Harris-Madison school, built to accommodate Granger’s rapid population growth during the 1970s and ‘80s, took its name not because it sounded scenic. It was literally built on a 13-acre prairie homestead that had been preserved as homes sprung up around it.

In the school’s first years, the prairie was a focal point of nature and science curriculum. Teachers, free from the pressures of preparing students for high-stakes standardized tests, tapped maple trees and taught how to make syrup as part of their Indiana history unit. Scout groups built bird feeders and seating, and teachers and volunteers maintained the vegetation to preserve native grasses and plants.

But somewhere between then and now, as those original teachers have retired, much of the prairie has been overgrown with junk trees and invasive weeds. Painted numbers on wooden posts that once marked the locations of native plants on a trail guide have disappeared. A foot bridge has been marred by graffiti. The corporation, facing a tight budget as the Great Recession hit, in 2008 demolished the home, which had been converted to an environmental center with laboratory and classroom space.

The house isn’t coming back, but the rest of it is, if plans are realized. The school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, having bought interactive whiteboards for classrooms as its most recent big project, has turned its sights on restoring the prairie. They’ve hired Fort Wayne-based Heartland Restoration Services to burn the vegetation to the ground, a permit for which the Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued last week after three months of review.

Third-grade teacher Debbie Baughman, the only Prairie Vista teacher who has been at the school since it opened, is excited. Through all of the changes she’s seen in education, she’s never lost her love of nature and she’s eager to instill more of it in today’s children.

“They’re so not used to just sitting and being quiet, so that is a big part of this,” Baughman said Friday while giving a reporter a tour of the site, her voice soft as birds sang in the woods. “You can enjoy yourself just by sitting and watching and listening for things. They’re not used to doing that because of computer games and always being go, go, go. It’s getting them back to that part where you can be outside, and giving yourself a chance to see what the world has to offer.”

Baughman wants to encourage younger teachers to develop lessons that incorporate the prairie. A group of them recently underwent training on problem-based learning and tying it into nature and the prairie, said Principal Keely Twibell.

“They came back and looked at the standards and started aligning, ‘What can we do to extend our classroom out to the prairie?’” Twibell said. “We’re really excited about some of the lessons that will be coming. In one, we’re going to be looking at monarch butterflies.”

For grades three through five, that problem-based learning will include restoring the prairie itself, Twibell said.

“Now we have the prairie burned, now what do we do? And have them lead that discussion so that it’s authentic learning that they’re figuring out,” Twibell said. “Let’s investigate some different plants or flowers. What’s going to survive here? And tie that into our habitat. We’re teaching habitats and reading a book but if you can come out here and see the change of seasons, the kids will really be able to get that hands on experience.”

Baughman said she hopes the return of the plants will bring back animals that fed on them.

“I’ve been out here (about six years ago) when there was a snake and a frog having a battle, and the kids were just surrounding and watching them to see who was going to win,” she said.

Under the prescribed vegetation burn permit, Heartland Restoration Services will burn an 8-acre area southeast of the school. Twibell last week sent letters to 45 surrounding property owners notifying them of the burn, which has yet to be scheduled.

Because a prairie is a full-sun ecosystem, Heartland Restoration director Eric Ummel said he will burn the thatch layer now on the ground, opening the soil back up to sunlight and allowing plants that have laid dormant for years to germinate.

Ummel recently told the school board of trustees that the best time to burn, which will last about four hours, is when the temperature is 40 to 70 degrees, the wind speed is 5 to 15 mph, the humidity is 20 to 60 percent, and it has rained in the past day. To protect nearby homes, IDEM is requiring the burn occur on a day when the winds are blowing from the south.

A 15-foot-wide turf lane will be maintained around the burn area, and dug out, to act as a firebreak.

Twibell must approve the burn’s timing. She won’t allow it to happen during the school day or when youth sports teams are using the adjacent fields. This week’s spring break would have been ideal, but the permit requires 15 days to elapse from the permit approval date, which was Tuesday, before the burn can occur.

She said she expects it will take place after school one day.

PTO President Becky Devarona said the group conceived of the idea about two years ago, and it’s something parents will be reminded of often over the next two years.

“This is an asset that we have as part of our school,” Devarona said, “and we have an obligation to try and take care of it.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1MOAxoB

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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