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Tue, Nov. 12

Miller Valley School joins in outdoor classroom program

The Daily Courier/Jo L. Keener<p>
Students, teachers, parents and volunteers recently planted low-water native plants to create an outdoor classroom at Miller Valley Elementary School.

The Daily Courier/Jo L. Keener<p> Students, teachers, parents and volunteers recently planted low-water native plants to create an outdoor classroom at Miller Valley Elementary School.

PRESCOTT - Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott will join two other area schools in participating in the Highland Center for Natural History's Schoolyard Habitat Program.

Miller Valley is the only school in the Prescott School District to participate in the program.

The Highland Center introduced the program two years ago at Coyote Springs Elementary School in Prescott Valley.

Habitat Learning Coordinator Lisa Packard expanded the program this past school year to Territorial Elementary School in Chino Valley.

Through the efforts of second grade teacher Sandy Spillman, Packard is bringing the program to Miller Valley when school starts in the fall.

Like the parents, teachers and students at Territorial, the parents, teachers and students at Miller Valley prepared an "outdoor classroom."

Miller Valley will have two outdoor classrooms - a courtyard and a habitat area with native low-water plants.

The volunteers at Territorial Elementary built a retaining wall at what was once a water catchment area, creating a bio-retention area. "The wall immediately created a habitat for lizards," Packard said.

Packard said the goal at the Highland Center and idea behind the habitat program is to "enrich learning while improving the environment at the school."

At Miller Valley, the students and teachers are creating a habitat for butterflies and hummingbirds in the courtyard area.

Spillman said the courtyard started as vacant land in the middle of the school. The idea, she said, was to convert it into a memorial garden for a teacher who died.

In 2003, Spillman began the application process for Miller Valley to become schoolyard habitat.

She said the requirements include providing food, water, shelter and a "place for babies."

Spillman and her fellow teachers are excited about the Schoolyard Habitat Program because it is "curriculum-driven."

"The nice thing," Spillman said, "is that standardized testing will have science testing next year. This will tie right into that."

Packard will visit Miller Valley throughout the school year, working with all grade levels. Her 45-minute lessons include exploration, sharing of findings and a science journal.

The curriculum is grade-specific, ranging from kindergartners learning the difference between a garden and a habitat to fifth-graders becoming solar seekers and learning about astronomy.

Spillman said the program gives students a "chance to go out and do real stuff. It is better to learn by doing than by reading it in a book."

Kindergarten teacher Susan Lezeau said her students would no longer have to grow things in "little cups. Part of the kindergarten curriculum is growing things. We will have our own path in the garden. In fall the students can grow beans and in the spring they can grow flowers."

Lezeau is looking forward to working with Packard.

"Lisa will help us blend with educational standards. She will also train us in teaching outdoors," Lezeau said.

An additional benefit of the program, the kindergarten teacher said, is it provides students a way to "get down in dirt. A lot of kids, even though they live in what is considered a rural area, see nothing but concrete."

Second grade teacher Debbie Baker thinks the students will love the program.

"It is always nice to get up out of your chair. The students will see the connections to what they are reading about are real. This will be a living classroom," Baker said.

Mike McCrady said he is surprised "how little students know about the habitat around them."

The fourth grade teacher said the Schoolyard Habitat Program is a unique opportunity for Miller Valley.

"It is an opportunity to expose kids to enough information that they hopefully will go home and tell their parents what they learned," McCrady said.

Miller Valley Principal Jeff Lane is "so excited this program is coming to our school. Every grade level will be actively involved."

Lane said securing the program is a "feather in the cap" for Miller Valley.

"It is great to know we are the only school in the Prescott district that will have this program. It shows that Miller Valley is still an up and coming school that is working hard. We have a lot to offer at Miller Valley," Lane said.

The principal used a $500 grant from Arizona Public Service and the Phoenix Suns to buy plants for the outdoor classroom.

"The benefit of this program is that it introduces the environment to students, creating a life-long respect," he said.

Spillman said, "I have been waiting for this forever. It is great of the Highlands Center to do this, and at no cost to the school."

Contact the reporter at prhoden@prescottaz.com

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