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Green schools grant hopes to expand natural spaces on FUSD campuses

With the help of a new grant, local organization Terra Birds hopes to bring new green yards to schools around Flagstaff, starting with Killip Elementary School.

The goal is to provide more access to nature and different learning experiences to those enrolled in Flagstaff Unified School District.

The grant comes after Flagstaff was selected as one of 10 cities to take part in the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative, a program run by the National League of Cities and the Children & Nature Network.

Both Mayor Paul Deasy and Superintendent Mike Penca signed onto the effort in April.

The program has previously helped create natural spaces and gardens for kids in other cities like New York and Oakland and provides training to locals looking to build green schoolyards, in addition to the grant money.

Community member Liz Taylor sits on the board of Terra Birds and the Killip School’s garden committee and said when she first heard about the program, she thought it was a perfect fit for Flagstaff.

John Taylor of Terra Birds said there is no one definition of a green school yard that they seek to create on campuses. Such spaces can run the gamut from vegetable gardens to areas with trees, native grasses and wildflowers, to even ponds.

“Really just sort of open space where there's soil, if you will, as opposed to just asphalt or playing fields for sports,” John Taylor said.

Still, he emphasized they are not seeking to eliminate playing fields from schools but instead simply provide another kind of environment for children on the grounds.

At Killip, the school has long had a garden program in which children can grow plants and learn outside, said Killip STEM Coordinator Sheryl Wells.

With Killip in the middle of building an entirely new and expanded school building, that garden no longer exists. But Wells said the grant will help them build the garden again and expand the natural area the school has for children to use and learn in.

In addition to the rebuilt garden, Wells said they hope to have a new nature trail running along the side of the school and connecting to the city’s nearby Ponderosa Park.

Those environments can be extremely beneficial to the kids attending the school and their education, Wells said.

“There are some kids, in the classroom they might be having behavior issues. But if they get outside, and they get to work with their hands and feel like they're doing something, that means so much more,” she said.

And Liz Taylor said they want to make sure children across FUSD have those same learning opportunities.

“The green school yard is not just about what it looks like; It’s about what happens there. It's that amazing moment, when you put a seed in a kid's hand, and they just look at it. They get really calm and they take a deep breath and they get ready to plant. It is magical,” she said.

Other schools in Flagstaff do already have green and natural spaces that students may enjoy and learn in. And many of those have been built and maintained with the help of Terra Birds.

As an organization, Terra Birds works directly with schools and the children that attend them to build and maintain gardens at several schools across the city.

But John Taylor said this may be an opportunity to put additional resources and emphasis on natural and green spaces on school campuses.

The grant is providing them about $40,000 over the course of three years, plus additional free trainings and assistance as they work to build the organizational infrastructure and relationships to keep the effort going into the future, said Liz Taylor.

She said they hope that further grant money later on can help them continue the effort.

In terms of the Killip project, Wells said they are now updating construction plans and discussing what areas will be utilized for green spaces and outdoor learning.

Updated for correction at 11:39 a.m. on July 8. 

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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