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Pleasant Valley Elementary School restores 13-acre habitat, creating an outdoor classroom

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - A boardwalk is the latest addition to the Wildside, 13 acres of restored nature habitat at Pleasant Valley Elementary School. Twelve years ago a sixth-grade teacher at Pleasant Valley Elementary School decided to restore seven acres of land next to the school playground back to a healthy, natural state and create a huge outdoor classroom for students. The project, called Wildside, has since grown to 13 acres, and about 5,000 students so far have studied in the green space.

"Science is my passion," says David Scharfenberg, the sixth-grade teacher.

The area was overgrown with invasive blackberries and other non-native plants. Volunteers removed acres of brambles and non-native trees through the years as the restoration progressed. Students, their families and community volunteers have planted 4,200 trees and 1,400 shrubs.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON  - Yajaira Uribe, a sixth grader, is all smiles as she helps spread gravel at the end of the new boardwalk at the Wildside. The boardwalk makes more of the Wildside accessible to everyone.  A workshed is stocked with enough equipment and gloves for a classroom, and an orchard was planted with apple and pear trees and trellised kiwi. The fruit will be used in Pleasant Valley's cafeteria. The most recent addition is a boardwalk to make the nature space more accessible to all and keep visitors above a marshy area.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - The Wildside is the brainchild and a 12-year-long project of Pleasant Valley sixth-grade teacher David Scharfenberg. The lanky, athletic Scharfenberg said he had three goals in addition to creating an outdoor classroom: improving soil and water quality; providing native plant and animal habitat, and encouraging the public to learn about and enjoy the environment.

Students express pride in their creation and work enthusiastically on projects.

Sixth-grader Tina Mai said she's happy to have a part in creating something "for a lot of generations that will come here," adding that the project is "about nature and how we can enhance nature."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Tina Mai, in flowered blouse, and Imana Rizvanovic, both sixth graders in David Scharfenbergs class, love to spend time and study in the Wildside. A student is responsible for the catchy Wildside moniker. Scharfenberg had been calling it South Field Project, but in 2008, sixth-grader Arthur Lemcke Kibby observed "that's a lame name" and suggested "Wildside" instead.

Scharenberg said "the class lit up and said 'That's a great name,'" and the space was rechristened.

Learning by doing

On a recent sunny day at Pleasant Valley, Scharfenberg's sixth-graders were pressed into service to spread gravel at the end of the newly-built boardwalk. The students went to the shed, donned work gloves and grabbed buckets. Careful not to fill them too full, the students cheerily made multiple trips to the gravel pile and spread the rocks at the end of the new boardwalk.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: PLEASANT VALLEY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL  - Volunteers plant native seedlings several years ago as the Wildside was being restored. One of the most recent projects involved planting 3,000 plugs of native wetland ground cover. Scharfenberg said it will not only be attractive, but also provide habitat for critters while holding the soil together.

Scharfenberg integrates other disciplines into science and the Wildside. The students improve their writing by crafting letters to thank volunteers or apply for grants.

Students were intrigued by what animals visit the restored environment.

"We have some sense from scat and tracks," Scharfenberg noted.

Students recently applied for a grant to buy game cameras.

"Our sixth-grade students do a lot of experiential learning and service learning on the Wildside," Principal Laura Nixon said, adding they "order materials and determine how much is needed for projects ... plant native species and learn about the different types of flora and fauna that are native to the area."

Students also raise funds to give back to the school with some kind of permanent donation for the property.

A fun place to be

Many schools have tried these kinds of projects, but on a much smaller scale, and they often fizzle out after a year or two. But Wildside has been going strong for more than a decade at the Centennial district school at 17625 S.E. Foster Road.

"This project has been successful because David Scharfenberg consistently works to improve and maintain the area," Nixon said, "and involves students in as many aspects of the process as possible."

He also actively recruits volunteers and partnerships with the community. Parents and community members, employees from Kohl's and Starbucks, students from Oregon State University and volunteers from the environmental nonprofit Solve It and Clackamas County Farm Forestry Association, among others, have worked on multiple projects.

The boardwalk was built by Portland's Northwest College of Construction, Constructing Hope and Portland Youth Builders.

More than 1,600 volunteers have donated 7,400 hours of service to the project. Scharfenberg has secured more than $200,000 in grants that have been used for restoration, flood abatement, water quality improvement, signage, tools, structures and student instruction.

But Tina's classmate Irana Rizvanovic simply called Wildside, "a beautiful place to hang out. It's fun to be out here."

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