Polk Central celebrates reopening of nature trail

A year-long effort by Polk Central Elementary fifth graders, faculty, friends and families to restore the school’s nature trail has completed – and received a celebration and state recognition to honor that work.

The school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday, May 12 to commemorate the work done on the Polk Central trail by all involved. Those in attendance included Lisa Tolley, program manager for the North Carolina Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs, who presented the school with a certificate from the Great Trails State Coalition designating it a “Year of the Trail School” for their efforts.

The school trail will now become part of the county’s public trail network. Polk Central is the first school trail to receive this designation in an auspicious year, the North Carolina Year of the Trail.

“I am very proud of our Polk Central Elementary students for taking on this challenge, and for doing an incredible job with the trail,” said Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene. “Real world learning opportunities make a huge impact on young people, and we are thankful for our community partners and donors who help make these experiences possible.

“I commend our educators for their emphasis on environmental education, and for helping our students understand that working together to appreciate and preserve our natural resources benefits us all. Thank you, Polk Central students, teachers, and community.”

Polk Central principal Dr. Kim McMinn presented fifth grade science teacher Andrea Walter with a plaque to be placed on the trail recognizing her efforts in growing and developing student learning at Polk Central. Dr. McMinn has been instrumental in guiding the curriculum at Polk Central towards engaging project-based and service learning.

Several students also spoke about their work on the project:

  • “One thing I will remember from this project is when we went up to the trail to clean up trash, cut invasive trees and vines, and remove poison ivy. It was fun to do hands-on learning. Whenever I do hands-on learning, it helps me remember information.” – Bralyn
  • “I hope people will be proud of all the work that we did. I am grateful for all the people who took time out of their days to help us with our project.” – Aloni
  • “The reason we picked this project was because the trail looked bad at first and we wanted it to be a fun, beautiful, and educational place. I hope that people will remember how important it is to keep our Earth clean and beautiful, because we only have one Earth.” – Alia

The Polk Central Nature Trail had become overgrown and underused, with its old interpretive signs lost, damaged or hidden in new forest growth. Walter wanted to restore the trail for both school and public use as the immediate area has limited public access to trails. Students, families and community members worked together to rebuild the trail, remove several species of invasive plants, and improve the trail’s surface for rainwater runoff.

Students participated in lessons and activities based on the trail and project, including the writing and installation of tree identification signs and virtual signs for the trail that are accessible through Google Maps.

“This feature allows the interpretive information on the trail to grow and change over time,” said Nikki Jones, Western North Carolina Region Director for the Muddy Sneakers program. “Trail users can access the interactive trail map on any device and customize their trail experience by selecting which themes to explore.”

Current themes include local history, wildlife, ecosystems activities and safety on the trail.

The trail is also interdisciplinary. Rebekah Morse, an English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, worked with students to conduct community interviews on the history of Polk County which provides an additional layer for the virtual signage.

Jones emphasizes the active role of students on the project.

“We worked with students to walk the trail, identify areas that needed repair, plan locations and content for physical and digital trail signs and develop the technology-enhanced trail experiences,” she said. “Every step of the process was student-centered and aligned with fifth grade standards and project-based learning goals.”

To enhance the community aspect and ensure the success of the project, Jones, Morse, and Walter connected the teachers and students with supporting organizations and agencies, including the Polk County Historical Society, the Polk County Public Library, Conserving Carolina AmeriCorps members, the Kudzu Warriors, the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Polk County Parks, Recreation and Maintenance Department.

The school credits Greene, Grants & Community Partnerships Coordinator Ronette Dill, a Facebook grant, the Kiwanis Club of Tryon and several private donors for their curriculum and financial support. Constructive Learning Design, through its RootEd program, provided Walter and Morse with the day-to-day coaching and support needed to implement the project.

Student-written virtual trail maps can be accessed from any location at http://bit.ly/polktrail. The public is invited to use the trail outside of school hours from sunrise to sunset.

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