The Edmond Sun

April 27, 2010

Elementary principal Skypes from Washington

Congressional subcommittee hears about outdoor classroom

Patty Miller
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Deer Creek Grove Valley Elementary School’s principal sat down Tuesday in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in Washington, D.C., as a group of kindergarten students in Oklahoma watched her intently back home.

Jenefer Nelson’s kindergartners were “Skyping” along with students in other Grove Valley classrooms. They listened to their principal address the members of the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife at a hearing titled, “Collaborative Solutions to Wildlife and Habitat Management.”

The committee, seeking collaborative approaches to wildlife and habitat management, was especially interested in the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act and how it had been implemented in the outdoor classroom at Deer Creek Elementary School under Straughn’s supervision. They also were interested in the plans for the outdoor classroom at Grove Valley Elementary School where she is now principal.

“We need to protect the land,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, a member of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, agreed and said often the government tells people what to do instead of going to the landowner for their input.

Using federal funds and private landowner participation, the Partners Program has been a successful voluntary partnership program since 1987, Inhofe said.

While waiting for Straughn to speak, Nelson led the students in a discussion using the words spoken by the senators as a springboard. They talked about setting goals and making a time-line to reach those goals. They also talked about budgets and cooperation as their teacher put the words being spoken during the hearing into examples they could understand.

Straughn told the committee the outdoor classroom being built at Grove Valley will house a frog pond, and there are wetlands already on the property.

While Straughn talked about walking trails, bridges, ponds to fish in, vegetable, flower and butterfly gardens to help preserve wildlife, the 5-year-olds listened intently.

“The children will be designing and caring for the area,” Straughn said, “and the Oklahoma County Conservation District will also be helping.”

The outdoor classroom will be shared with the community living in the adjacent neighborhoods.

“I am passionate about outdoor education,” Straughn said. “Only 2 percent of our children have the opportunity for outdoor education compared to 100 percent of the children in the 1900s.”

Children are our future and we need to find ways to let them go outdoors to explore, Straughn said.

One student said he really was excited about the outdoor classroom.

“We can go fishing,” Michael Gehrig said while beaming.

Mitchell Harvey said he would like to go fishing, also, but he looked forward to planting a garden.

“I have a Venus flytrap at home,” Mitchell said, “and I’ve never gotten in trouble by the principal.”

In 2002 Straughn had helped build an outdoor classroom at Deer Creek Elementary School when she was a principal there, and that experience and her expertise in outdoor classrooms were some of the reasons she was asked to speak before the committee.

Before Straughn left she said she would be one of four or five witnesses that will be talking about the Partner’s Act.

“My testimony will be my experiences with the outdoor classroom at Deer Creek Elementary and the building of a new one at Grove Valley,” Straughn said. “Tinker Air Force Base is helping us as a partner with Grove Valley.” 

Straughn said the school already has received the designs for its new outdoor classroom.

Sen. Cardin said he wanted Straughn to share her ideas with other schools.

“You are doing great work,” Cardin said.

“The district certainly appreciates her expertise and dedication to outdoor education and are proud that she is representing Deer Creek in Washington,” said Rebecca Wilkinson, superintendent.