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Cedar River Academy Students Plan Facelift for Mahler Park

Educators at the Enumclaw private school sought a long-term learning project for their students in which they could master a range of academic subjects while 'on the job' when the city of Enumclaw suggested they look into developing Mahler Park.

Five sixth and seventh students at are getting a real-world lesson in city planning as they work towards -- with the blessing of the city of Enumclaw -- a development plan for the largely undeveloped Mahler Park.

This isn't a semester-long assignment. It's not even a year-long undertaking. Their teachers Anna Schofield and Marie Riley expect this will be an ongoing long-term project that they'll continue to work on, potentially into the high school level while involving younger students entering the sixth grade.

In part because the students don't have a finite deadline for this project -- which includes at least three meetings with the city Park Board through May to present and refine their ideas -- and because they each have a specific area of the project that is their speciality, they've really taken ownership of it, said school founder Roger Franklin.

Atticus Chous has constructed a to-scale model of the park in a Newaukum Creek, complete with a water channel to simulate stream flow of the creek. He uses a spray bottle to simulation precipitation over the park and can easily identify potential areas of the park where rainfall might affect erosion.

Along with Clint Larrea, they are looking at sediment flow and finding the various ways that sediment moves and collects.

Clara Gerken is looking at bio- and tribo-luminescence and growing bio-luminescent algae.

Jose Garcia has dissected salmon and studied the way biologists are helping to cultivate the salmon population by harvesting milt and eggs in order to breed the fish. He complements the science by also studying how salmon influences the people, land and culture around it.

Conversely, Shelby Porter is looking at water quality for not only the salmon but how it affects the land that surrounds it and the people who rely on it.

Their specialties come together nicely, said Riley, in that their research builds on one another's and the group collaborates often in what they find. For example, Shelby's insights into water quality directly affect Jose's work with salmon.

Working with the city of Enumclaw

"Our education model is very hands-on learning for the kids," said Franklin, and at the middle school level, teachers were looking for a project in which the students could build a varied skill set to be ready for high school and college. "We wanted to find a meaningful project for these kids to work on that could potentially turn into a long-range project year after year with more kids becoming involved."

Last May, Cedar River teachers and students met with Mayor Liz Reynolds for project ideas, and she referred them to community development director Erika Shook. As Shook reviewed the environmental studies material that the students had already studied, she suggested they propose concepts for the development of Mahler Park.

"There's no budget and no funds for the development of Mahler Park," said Franklin. "But the city was interested in exploring what might be done and to raise community interest."

Background Preparation

"Our kids had done quite a lot of work in environmental studies," Franklin said. 

But to take on the Mahler Park project, they needed more background. “Before they could hope to contribute meaningful ideas for the development of Mahler Park, our middle school students needed to acquire a significant amount of background knowledge of environmental, social, historical, scientific, and mathematical topics related to community development,” said humanities teacher Riley. “We developed curriculum for our students that included meeting the Washington State standards for mathematics, sciences, social studies, and communications. This curriculum also provided the background knowledge students would need to make meaningful contributions to the Enumclaw Park Board's Mahler Park planing process.”

Last fall, students made several trips to Mahler Park to learn about its terrain, its condition, and to remove trash and debris.

In October they also spend three days at the Olympic Park Institute on the Olympic Peninsula's Elwha River system to learn about the history of the two river dams and observe the environmental effects of the removal of those dams while the surrounding habitat was being restored. (National Park Service has more information.)

“Following our trip to the Elwha river projects, our students developed their baseline knowledge by completing a variety of projects that represented their individual areas of interest,” said math and sciences teacher Schofield. “These projects allowed our students to develop the skills needed to create meaningful environmentally relevant land use plans.”

Planning School Playground

To add to their arsenal of planning experience, the students were also tasked with coming up with a playground design for about four acres of under-developed land at Cedar River's new site behind the Enumclaw Seventh-day Adventist Church at 3333 Griffin Avenue.

It moved there from its previous location at the former J.J. Smith building in December.

Students Shelby and Clara explained that they surveyed several parks to identify elements they wanted to incorporate, which included opportunities for natural play and artistic play. The five students each drafted their own ideas and in the end consolidated into one final plan with assistance from a landscape architect.

It would be a lesson in collaboration and compromise, though teacher Riley added that as the students knew their budget they were better able to adjust their own visions to ensure they had a workable design.

Franklin stressed the various skills the students acquired in the playground project that wouldn't typically be found in a middle school classroom, including learning about the cost of materials needed to build it and working under a budget. But standard lessons are also there: as the final design features a teepee structure, Schofield pointed out that in determining how long the teepee poles needed to be, they needed the Pythagorean theorem.

"They did a really professional job for more than what we could expect," Franklin said. The school is currently implementing their design with an expected finish date this June.

Mahler Park Timeline

Meanwhile, the students are working their way through their timeline plan for the park, with their first meeting with the city Park Board this coming March 15. 

This presentation will cover the students' inventory work of the park, including its wildlife, plant life, stream biology, geology and archaeology dig/survey. They're getting assistance from stream biologist Martin Fox from the Muckleshoot Tribe as well as Muckleshoot archaeologist Laura Murphy.

Upon the feedback they receive, they'll revise plans with a second Park Board meeting on April 19. Along the process, they'll also meet with city and county planners and environmentalists and learn about park rules, regulations, laws and codes to draft a final plan to present to the Park Board on May 17.

“It is impressive to see what students can accomplish and learn when artificial boundaries are removed from their education process”, said Kristin McSwan, Cedar River Academy Head of School. “The skills and knowledge these students develop as they complete projects like the Mahler Park work, will be permanently fixed in their minds. We truly appreciate that Enumclaw city administrators have allowed our studentsto gain real-world experiences.  In the event the Enumclaw Parks Board incorporates any of our student's suggestions in any final Mahlar Park development plan, our students will feel even more proud of their work.”

Mayor Liz Reynolds March 01, 2012 at 11:23 PM
I Just met with this incredible 11 year old group of students working on this project and one word comes to mind. AMAZING.. The students have taken what used to be an average perception of what a park would be/has been and taken it to the next generation while carefully assessing the geology, hydrology, plant species, water quality, wildlife, impacts and even maintainence and budgetary concern.. etc and created a scientific ,recreational space concept of a park that is truly an outdoor learning and recreational experience for all ages. I look forward to the unvailing of the next phase. Amazing work being done with the students at Cedar River Academy.. Good job
April Chan March 02, 2012 at 05:57 AM
Totally agree, Mayor Liz! The students handed me a copy of their project timeline and for a second there I thought it came from the city's community development department. They were *that* organized.
Jean Hoiland March 02, 2012 at 03:41 PM
My son went to CRA for three years. He still talks about it 2 1/2 years later. Roger Franklin and his staff have created and are building a wonderful learning center for our community. As an entrepreneur I appreciate the real world experience CRA offers kids.
Kristie March 07, 2012 at 09:25 PM
What a great opportunity for children to learn! This is how education ought to be!

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