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Dancing a native prairie into life in White Bear Lake

This articles details how the Students at a White Bear Lake elementary school turned a weedy back lot into a science project.

Publications: Star Tribune
Author: David Peterson

It looked a bit like a military maneuver as the entire student body of an elementary school spread out in squadrons across a dusty field on Wednesday and prepared for orders to march.

But the aim was not to fight. It was to sow seeds, dance them into the soil, then race off for home at the end of the school day.

In a few years, as a result of their work, a weedy patch outside Otter Lake Elementary in White Bear Lake will turn into a stretch of native prairie the size of two football fields that will be home to wildlife and pollinators.

Wednesday's work, however, didn't look like a very organized way of creating a science project, what with kindergartners spreading seeds on a blustery day.

"It's windy out," a voice from the loudspeaker warned, "so be sure to get the seeds right down on the ground in front of you!"

But it turned out to be a bit of showmanship anyway. Professionals will return Thursday to make sure the planting is done right, said Ron Bowen, president of Prairie Restorations Inc., of Princeton, Minn.

A lot of the 'seed' the kids have been given is really sawdust," he confided, "which is fine; it's a carrier."

The transformation of the field was the brainchild of fourth-grade teacher Thom Green. Returning from an intensive training offered by the St. Croix River Association, Green said he "noticed this weedy area behind the school that was probably real prairie way, way back" - it had been a horse farm more recently, before the school rose on the site in the early 1990s.

As chance would have it, he said, the Ramsey County chapter of Pheasants Forever was primed to help: A native prairie project the group had hoped to create just across the street at a nature center had fallen through.

Prairie Restorations was willing to be drawn in as a partner, donating labor. The group sprayed, carried out a controlled burn on the nonnative weeds and prepped the soil for planting. It will return from time to time to manage the site in the next few years, said the firm’s site manager, Jeff West.

"You need to weed a bit until the prairie takes hold," West said.

On Wednesday, the kids waited patiently through speeches to get to the planting, impressed - for a moment filled with oohing - by Rep. Betty McCollum, who let them know she “works with President Obama in Washington" as she described her work as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the years to come, school officials said, each grade will inspect the prairie as part of science classes, each with rising sophistication. Kindergartners will watch plants and animals interact; fifth-graders will compare restored and nonrestored ecosystems.

"It will always be something they can come back to and say, 'I helped make this,'" Green said.

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