DeSmet School's oldest students presented a parting gift on Wednesday, unveiling their work this year to revive the native garden and transform it into the Outdoor Learning Center.
The school's 105 students crammed into the garden Wednesday. Seventh- and eighth-graders spoke about their work in the practical arts class, 18 students who spent part of this semester rejuvenating the garden by the front doors.
Twelve years ago, teachers Linda Briggeman and Melanie Pettit planned a garden for the school. They landed a grant and it came to life. But a few years ago, the watering and pump systems broke.
"It sort of went to ruin and was sort of a pile of weeds rather than a beautiful native garden," said practical arts teacher Magdalen Marmon.
The school registered with the National Wildlife Federation as an eco-school. Through the Eco-Schools USA program, sustainability and habitat educator Juliet Slutzker connected DeSmet with the Zero Waste Ambassadors Program at Home ReSource.
In March, Marmon's students started working with Home ReSource, which provided materials for the benches, and taught the kids how to build them. Each bench was built by two students. Three students built the tables.
"They built them, they stained them, they chose the stain," Marmon said, "which is why the tables are black and the benches are white, because that's what they wanted. Seventh- and eighth-graders love black."
Students weeded the garden and started staining the fence. Money was raised through the annual Butler Creek Boogie to replace parts of the fence and to hopefully replace the water system this summer.
"It’s a beginning work in progress, but it was very much started by the seventh and eighth grade kids and what they wanted to do for their school before they leave," Marmon said. "We have 12 eighth-graders leaving us here. For them to have something that they can leave behind that’s their gift to the school is important."
Briggeman thanked the students for their work.
"That really does make it the native garden and outdoor classroom that we always envisioned," she said.
Eighth-grader Jasmine Cherry remembered the garden as a shady, "calm place to hang out" when she was in second grade. But eventually the trees died and had to be cut down.
"I think it's going to be an awesome thing to have because I'm leaving this year so I won't get to experience it, but I think it's a cool experience for all the other kids," she said.
Eighth-grader Grace Daniel pointed out all of its potential uses: Experiments in earth and science classes, Native American studies, "getting the creative juices flowing" during writing, inspiration for art classes, and taking math and English courses outside – "especially when the days start to get warmer and the students catch spring fever."
"The native plant garden is very important to DeSmet because it shows the diversity of plant life in Montana, which we love," said eighth-grader Bailey Boyles. "Turning our garden into a classroom was good for us because it gives students an opportunity to enjoy nature while learning and kids can also learn about nature while being outside."
It isn't only a native garden and an outdoor classroom. The garden serves as a wildlife habitat, with birdhouses and native plants and flowers.
After the unveiling, NWF handed out 150 Ponderosa pine trees for the students to take home. The trees came to DeSmet through NWF's Trees for Wildlife program.
"DeSmet School is one of those that's jumping its way up with an active eco team," said Sarah Bates, NWF deputy director in the Northern Rockies, Prairies & Pacific Office. "We sent home these small plants so they could be motivated. Even a little apartment can provide wildlife habitat, because wildlife includes insects, butterflies and bees and birds. You can make habitat wherever your are, really, in an outdoor space."
DeSmet's practical arts class is crafted by the teacher, this year including sewing, cooking, gardening, accounting, computer programming and more.
"I created a sort of brand new program that was based on the students choosing their own projects, being given materials and then choosing how to do things themselves, looking up how to do things themselves, trying things out," said Marmon, who's in her first year at DeSmet. "It was very much a maker space experience, which was new for a lot of them and new for me.
"This is a particularly self-driven, hard-working class that really looks at failure and goes whoops! let's try again and make success out of every failure. These kids have bright futures."