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Most students are accustomed to lessons that take place in a classroom, but students at Sussex School also get their hands dirty through interactive lessons.

About 45 middle schoolers from Sussex replaced pencils with shovels and picks recently, as they helped build and maintain trails at Milltown State Park.

Groups of Sussex students of all ages visited numerous sites on Friday for their “Ecothon,” an all-day annual event where students learn the importance of service work.

Throughout the day, students helped fill volunteer needs for nonprofit organizations and public parks and recreation areas. 

“We were instructed to take off part of the trail and turn it into a longer switchback,” said Ryan Howell, a seventh-grader who helped level a newly dug trail at Milltown State Park.

Howell and other students used shovels and picks to clear roots and extend the trail.

Milltown State Park is a 500-plus acre forested bluff overlooking the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. It’s also the former site of a Superfund river restoration project.

Before beginning their work for the day, the students hiked to the park’s overlook and learned about the history of the site and the Clark Fork Coalition’s role in the removal of Milltown Dam.

The riverbeds have since been cleaned up, and over the last four years the Montana Conservation Corps has built almost 3 miles of trail at Milltown with plans to develop more, according to MCC regional director Bobby Grillo.

MCC is one of several organizations with which Sussex partners throughout the year to provide students with service learning opportunities. In turn, the students provide organizations with much-needed assistance.

On Friday, Sussex students visited various sites in the Missoula area for Ecothon. While middle schoolers helped with the trails, elementary students prepped gardens at the Moon-Randolph Homestead and Garden City Harvest, assisted at Free Cycles and picked up trash throughout Missoula.

“It's really good to contribute your community and whenever I do service work, I just come home and feel happy,” Howell said.

Joellen Shannon, Sussex’s co-director, said community-building is one of the school’s core values.

The school’s community service extends throughout the year. Each month, students participate in service learning partnerships with the Missoula Food Bank, Watershed Education Network, the Springs senior living center, MCC and Soft Landing.

“We want to cultivate good and engaged citizens in our communities here and wherever they end up by giving them examples and showing them ways they can participate and have an impact on their community,” Shannon said.

The students also learn about the different organizations and sites where they work.

Alden Hall, an eighth-grader at Sussex, said Friday was the third time he’s worked with MCC, and that he plans to participate in one of their high school programs through AmeriCorps, in which youth receive stipends to do trail work throughout Montana.

“I’ve learned how to clear trails and follow the fall line, which is how steep you make the trail so it doesn’t corrode with erosion,” Hall said. “Also trying to not clear too much because it's unhealthy, and making it look natural.”

Hall said he’s learned a lot from various outdoor learning opportunities at Sussex.

“I think a lot of schools, kids just go to school every day, go to their classes, go home and then go to sports or hang out with friends but here, we get to go out and get dirt under our fingernails and learn how to help the environment,” he said.

Joe Zephyrs, a STEM teacher at Sussex, added that experiences like Ecothon are just as valuable to students’ education as standard curriculum.

“Sometimes I fall into the pitfall that we often have to avoid with education, which is thinking that earning is something that always has to be tied to academics,” Zephyrs said.

Some students might not enjoy the hard work that comes with service learning but they’ll likely enjoy spring field trips the school pays for with fundraising money from pledges for the students’ day of work.

“Whether they have a great time today or whether they really struggle with the work, they’re still moving through it and then they can say, ‘Wow, that was hard but it also felt really meaningful to me,’” Shannon said.

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