A classroom in the forest

Current and former Kenwood students Eliah F, Ava W and Eleanor F (left to right), pictured last spring during the installation of oriole feeding stations at Cedar Lake Park. Submitted photo
Current and former Kenwood students Eliah F, Ava W and Eleanor F (left to right), pictured last spring during the installation of oriole feeding stations at Cedar Lake Park. Submitted photo

Kenwood Elementary is discovering that a perfect field trip is a 15-minute walk away. Students are visiting Cedar Lake Park (the woods bordering “Hidden Beach” at the northeast end of Cedar Lake) to take four-mile hikes, plant wildflowers and asparagus, and check the oriole feeding stations made by last year’s fifth graders. Students in Cynthia Quehl’s music class once grabbed umbrellas and walked to the woods for a little concert, where they sang “Singing in the Rain” and “This Pretty Planet.”

“We were our own audience that day,” Quehl said.

Teachers and parents are working to make Cedar Lake Park a DNR School Forest. Partnering with the DNR would give the school access to curriculum  materials and resources like GPS kits.

“This is really a dream of mine,” said Angela Erdrich. “…My four kids have gone through Kenwood, and let’s say this will be my swan song over the next two years.”

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Erdrich and her husband work as pediatricians, and she said they have always thrown themselves into volunteering, working to promote health in the rural reservation communities where they lived. In Kenwood, Erdrich secured a grant for a new raingarden next to the school playground, which features a poem on stepping stones written by Angela’s sister and author Louise Erdrich.  She’s even provided her backyard as a field trip destination, where students participated in a scavenger hunt and hike to investigate 43 fruits and vegetables.

“It’s amazing what one parent’s inspiration and motivation can do,” Quehl said.

Erdrich said Cedar Lake Park offers an alternative to long field trips that disrupt class time and require expensive busing.

“I saw that the wooded trails were a best kept secret in Minneapolis, so close to a school that was not using them or really connecting there.  Yet being secret is what keeps them beautiful and un-trampled,” Erdrich said in an email. “I wanted to connect the woods to an institution that would be respectful of the philosophy and history of the Cedar Lake Park Association.”

Trails wind through the woods behind the beach, bringing visitors to spots like “Buckthorn Village,” an art project created out of twisted buckthorn pulled from the woods. Another destination is “Linda’s Spiral,” a rock art installation created in honor of Linda Jadwin, who died at age 55 after slipping on a bluff above the Kinnickinnic River in Wisconsin. As related by friend Marian Moore, the words inscribed on a rock were found in her journals, including the phrase: “At any moment I can start anew.”

Teacher Rene Goepfrich said the oriole feeder project came in response to the oriole population’s local decline in recent years at Cedar Lake Park. In a project sponsored by Birchbark Books, fifth graders created the feeders and stocked them with oranges to draw orioles back to the area. It worked. Neighbors who led students on hikes last spring spotted the birds and identified oriole calls to the kids.

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School Forest Specialist Karen Harrison said the DNR program provides teachers with resources and aids schools in managing the land. In Minneapolis, schools including Dowling and Northrop also maintain school forest programs.

Harrison said Minnesota forests are used for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and long-term plant and fish studies. A school in Grand Rapids has a forestry skills program, in which students use chainsaws to thin the forest, work with a portable sawmill and create lumber for class. Many students conduct observations in the forests, Harrison said — one first grade class in Duluth reported hearing beavers below the ice.

“Not only does it teach students to appreciate and become aware of natural resources, but being in nature has a variety of benefits,” Harrison said. “Learning outside is more memorable, decreases stress, increases motivation, improves classroom behavior, and increases academic achievement.”

Volunteers have worked for years to maintain Cedar Lake Park as a natural area. The park could have become a townhome development.

According to Keith Prussing of the Cedar Lake Park Assocation, Burlington Northern Railroad offered the present-day park’s 47 acres for sale for $1.8 million in 1988. He said the offer quickly attracted a development proposal to extend Upton Avenue to the north and build townhomes with lake views.

“Meanwhile, citizens from Bryn Mawr and Kenwood conceived of a different idea, that the highest and best use of the land was a nature park,” he said in a written history of the park. “They began to talk to their neighbors, held community meetings, placed labeled trash cans in the ‘park,’ and created a slide show that they presented to anyone who would watch and listen.”

The nonprofit Cedar Lake Park Association raised funds to purchase the land and donate it to the Park Board.

“The process took several months and the tireless work of many individual citizens, but the private money was collected, the state legislature came through, and the land was purchased, becoming one of the largest additions to the MPRB holdings of 6400 acres since the early 1900’s,” he said.

To make the park a DNR School Forest, the next steps involve creating a joint powers agreement in collaboration with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and approval from the Minneapolis School Board.

Prussing said the School Forest designation would be significant. He said they anticipate hundreds of trees to come down if light rail comes through.

“It makes it more of a destination and protects it more,” he said. “…Combating nature deficit disorder is a good thing.”

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