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Spring will come soon for prairie-loving Blue Valley North students

Last summer, the Blue Valley North High School prairie site thrived with coreopsis flowers and rye grass. The prairie is a multi-year project spearheaded by the school’s science teachers, Chris Ollig and Daniel Smalley. More than 140 students are involved in developing the prairie, which will be a hands-on learning environment for students of from all grade levels.
Last summer, the Blue Valley North High School prairie site thrived with coreopsis flowers and rye grass. The prairie is a multi-year project spearheaded by the school’s science teachers, Chris Ollig and Daniel Smalley. More than 140 students are involved in developing the prairie, which will be a hands-on learning environment for students of from all grade levels. Courtesy photo

In April, 150 Blue Valley North students came together to plan and plant a prairie on their campus. In the process, they have built a community for today, while cultivating a legacy for the future.

Initially a collaborative vision of science teachers Chris Ollig and Daniel Smalley, this 1-acre prairie was established to provide students a project-based, hands-on learning experience focused on native Kansas ecosystems.

As the students gain knowledge and skills to establish a prairie from the “seed up,” they are also learning about the value of community connections.

“This project is really more than just teaching students how to build a prairie,” Ollig said. “It’s really about the community. In order to be successful with a project like this, you need the help of many people.”

The support of people like principal Tyson Ostroski — as well as the rest of the school’s administration, staff and grounds crews — has been essential, Ollig said.

“Our students have sought the advice of professionals and experts throughout the community to guide them,” Ollig said. “This has not only been an opportunity for students to learn what goes into building a sustainable prairie habitat, but to also learn how to work with others to help you succeed.”

An ongoing, multi-year project, the initial site preparation and seeding starts in the spring.

During last year’s process of coaxing existing weeds from the ground, the prairie site was planted with yellow coreopsis and rye grass, which bloomed and thrived throughout the summer.

Those species are now dormant and the students have continued clearing the deep-rooted weeds, when the ground is not frozen, in preparation for more planting and seeding. In addition, Ollig, Smalley and their students have developed a seed bank as a resource for future planting. The seed bank includes native grass, plant and flower species, including pollinators such as milkweed and coneflower.

“We’re going to have an acre-size space that will feel like a classroom in the middle of the prairie. I can’t wait for other teachers to realize we’re sitting on a gold mine,” Ollig said.

“Elementary, middle and high school students will be able to use this space for their lessons.”

Smalley also envisions a wide scope of possibilities for this “prairie in the city.”

“We’re trying to change the cultural landscape, as well as the physical landscape,” he said. “We envision a more dynamic space for our students to learn. It’s going to be a place to experience the arts, math, science and music outside.”

For now, students have gained awareness about how their contribution is helping to regenerate the earth and its resources.

“We took 140 kids out to rake and put down seeds. You can look at Google maps and see we made an impact on the earth,” Smalley said.

“These kids are literally changing the planet and they believe they are doing the best thing in the world. The most important part is that this was designed and built by students, so they have a stake in it.”

Senior Sajni Saravanan is one of the students committed to her school’s prairie project, as well as to her own vision for bettering the planet.

“We keep polluting the earth and harming Mother Nature,” she said. “We need to stop doing that and make some changes. I want to be part of those changes.”

Junior Jaclyn Perry agreed.

“I’ve always loved natural spaces and the impact they can have,” Perry said. “Mr. Smalley says anyone can make an impact and a difference, and we really believe we can do this.”

The students investing their energy and efforts in Blue Valley North’s prairie have made a commitment to a project will take years to bring to fruition. They are aware that this legacy they are creating together will not reach its full potential until long after they’ve graduated and moved on into their futures.

“Prairie systems take many years to see their biodiversity and outcome,” Ollig said.

“With this project, students are getting the opportunity to be on the ground floor, but our underlying goal is to feed our students’ passion, so they gain an appreciation for the natural world.”

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