Peoples Gas Steps Up for School Gardens

Peoples Gas

Openlands is thrilled to announce Peoples Gas as the Principal Sponsor of the Building School Gardens program for the next three years. Their generous support will allow Openlands’ ongoing efforts to provide support and resources to Chicago Public Schools that have already installed gardens through the program.

Launched in 2007, the Building School Gardens program currently supports 58 Chicago Public Schools. Openlands hosts workshops for teachers, leads garden workdays for the school community, and works closely with leadership at the schools to create sustainable gardens and expand environmental education. Through this program, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to the hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.

“We are thrilled to support this initiative to provide students the opportunity to learn and play in an environment that encourages them to connect with nature and learn about it in a hands-on way,” said Mary Houpt, Peoples Gas Manager of Community Partnerships.

Photo: Allison Williams

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Coming Soon — School Field Trips!

With the generous support of Peoples Gas, Openlands is now excited to announce that we can expand the Building School Gardens program to provide deeper connections to nature for students and their families during weekend trips to nearby large-scale landscapes such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Deer Grove Forest Preserve, or Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.

Family field trips to some of the region’s best natural areas are a phenomenal way to ground what students learn in their outdoor classrooms and through environmental education lessons. Research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an predictor of future environmental stewards, and this informs the core of our education programs. Openlands is excited to have this new layer in our school partnerships because we know deeper relationships will lead to stronger advocates for the environment.

“A school campus is often the heart of a neighborhood and having a school with lush gardens and safe green spaces makes people want to stay, visit, and be present in their community,” said Openlands’ Vice President of Community Conservation Daniella Pereira. “Hosting workshops for the teachers, working with the students, and having the support from families and school staff has been essential to building the relationships that make a green campus a true asset. We’re honored to be invited into these school communities and we are so excited to keep the work going with the support of Peoples Gas.”


Peoples Gas, a subsidiary of WEC Energy Group (NYSE: WEC), is a regulated natural gas delivery company that serves approximately 830,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in the city of Chicago. You can find more information about natural gas safety, energy efficiency and other energy-related topics at peoplesgasdelivery.com.


Openlands commits to long-term relationships with our Chicago Public School partners, working with students to see nature in a school garden, around their neighborhoods, and across landscapes. As our expertise in environmental education has grown over the years, we have developed new programs to help students recognize the nature around them and to engage entire school communities in conservation.

For more information on our education programs, please contact schools@openlands.org.

Davis Elementary Opens New Space to Grow Schoolyard

On Tuesday, June 19 — the last day of school at Chicago Public Schools — Nathan S. Davis Elementary officially opened their redesigned Space to Grow campus. Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into vibrant spaces to play, learn, and be outside, while helping neighborhoods to reduce urban flooding. Located in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, Davis is now the tenth schoolyard transformation completed through Space to Grow.

Davis Elementary and Openlands first partnered together in 2011 through our Building School Gardens program, and at that time, two school gardens and outdoor classroom facilities were installed. But before its Space to Grow redesign, the schoolyard at Davis wasn’t much of a community asset: the school’s turf grasses were worn down by the regular recess activity and the surface track needed to be repaved. The schoolyard did not drain well after rain and storms, making it difficult for plants and gardens to thrive, and a new playground was at the top of students’ wishlists.

After gathering input from community members, the Space to Grow team came up with a plan for the school. The new features at Davis Elementary include outdoor classrooms, new rain gardens and native plants, as well as three new age-appropriate playgrounds. A stormwater management system is integrated across the campus which can capture 150,000 gallons of rain. The new campus also now includes a turf field, basketball courts, and surface track to promote physical wellness for students and community members.

“This space is open to all of you – families and students – on the weekends and after school, and we invite you to use it and enjoy it,” said Davis Elementary’s Principal Rocio Rosales-Gaskin. “We ask that you help us care for and steward it, so it can become a green asset for the community.”


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Space to Grow schoolyards like Davis are designed as welcoming green spaces not just for students and teachers, but also for the parents and residents of the surrounding community. Students, staff, parents, and community members are invited to participate in the inclusive planning process, allowing for the unique needs and vision of the entire school community to be communicated and addressed in the design.

“We know that all of you here today – parents, neighbors, community partners, teachers, and staff and your dedication administration in Ms. Rosales and Ms. Negron – are key ingredients to a healthy and successful school, and I want thank you all,” Senior Vice President of the Healthy Schools Campaign Claire Marcy said. “You not only helped design the schoolyard, but have all committed to use and maintain this beautiful new space. You are the heart of Space to Grow!”

Although each design is unique, every schoolyard supports the program’s three main goals of managing stormwater, creating outdoor classrooms and gardens, and providing health and wellness opportunities. Schools in the program all have recognized needs when the planning begins, such as lack of neighborhood green space, inadequate playgrounds for students, and regular local flooding, but from the beginning of the process we work closely with the communities to ensure the project meets their unique needs and has community champions.

“It is so wonderful that the Nathan Davis students and community can connect to nature right here at your school,” Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann said. “Your new schoolyard features not only this amazing new playground and field, but also a beautiful outdoor classroom and many gardens.”


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Alderman George Cardenas with Davis students

After first establishing our relationship with Davis through Building School Gardens, we are so pleased to see the school enhanced by their new Space to Grow campus. Openlands commits to long-term relationships with our Chicago Public School partners, working with students to see nature in a school garden, around their neighborhoods, and across landscapes. As our expertise in environmental education has grown over the years, we have developed new programs to help students recognize the nature around them and to engage entire school communities in conservation.

Davis Elementary is the first of six schools to celebrate new schoolyards through the program in 2018. We are currently assisting the school communities at Cook Elementary in Auburn-Gresham, Fernwood Elementary in Washington Heights, Eugene Field Elementary in Rogers Park, Morton School of Excellence in Humboldt Park, and Farnsworth Elementary School in Jefferson Park, and those schoolyards will open later in the year.

Partnerships like Space to Grow help our education programs continue to evolve, and help Openlands continue to listen, continue to engage, and continue to inspire the next generation of conservation leaders.


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The redesign would not be a reality without funding and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater·Chicago. And next fall, the schoolyard will have new edible gardens donated by Big Green Chicago (formerly the Kitchen Communtiy). We’re also honored to have the support of the philanthropic and corporate community including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, ArcelorMittal, Prince Charitable Trusts, Polk Brothers Foundation, The Siragusa Family Foundation, and the Central Indiana Community Foundation for this important work. Additional support was provided by a joint effort of U-Haul and the Conservation Fund to support community conservation in Chicago.


Space to Grow is an award-winning, innovative program led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into vibrant outdoor spaces that benefit students, community members, and the environment. Space to Grow uses a unique model that brings together capital funds and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. For more information, please visit www.spacetogrowchicago.org.

How To: Self-Guided Bird Walk

The following entry was written by Openlands Education Programs Coordinator, John Cawood. In his position, John helps to manage our Birds in my Neighborhood® program.

Want to go on a self-guided bird walk? Here are some tips!

Recently I had the joy of leading a bird walk with fourth grade students in Ms. Coleman’s class at Lavizzo Elementary, as a part of Openlands Birds in my Neighborhood Program. Lavizzo is in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the south side, just west of Lake Calumet, and there is a high level of bird activity year-round. How do I know? The kids told me! They told me of the sparrows, blue jays, robins, cardinals, hawks, ducks, and geese that they had seen in their neighborhood. They told me that sometimes the birds are building nests, looking for food, singing in the trees, or soaring high in the sky. Then each student researched a bird and told me all about what they had learned.


Before we went out on a bird walk around the schoolyard, they also told me what you need to do in order to see birds. Here are their suggestions:

  1. Be quiet, so that you don’t scare the birds away. Also, if you are quiet then you might even be able to hear them sing.
  2. Try not to shout when you see a bird; just point so that other people can see the bird too.
  3. Be sneaky. Move slowly and quietly so you don’t scare the birds away.
  4. Be observant. Birds could be on the ground, behind a bush, in a tree, or in the sky, so look everywhere!
  5. If you are using binoculars, be very careful with them. Make sure they are focused so that you can see through them clearly.
  6. If the others in your group don’t seem to be doing the things you need to do to see birds, quietly remind them. That if they are observant, quiet, and slow moving, everyone has a better chance of seeing more birds.

This is a great list! Ms. Coleman has a lot of smart kids in her class. If you decide to go on a bird walk in your neighborhood, using their list will definitely help you to see more birds.


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If you are looking for suggestions for binoculars (you don’t need binoculars to see birds, but they do help with Rule #4 on the Lavizzo List), Birds in my Neighborhood uses the Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8×30 model. They cost around $100, and are very sturdy and easy to hold on to. You can also hit Rule #4 by going birding with multiple people. Having a larger group presumably means that there are more eyes looking around for birds, but don’t forget Rule #6!

If you need a guide to help you along the way, Forest Preserves of Cook County offer a printable bird ID checklist. Our friends at the Field Museum offer some excellent guides to ID common Chicagoland birds including common sparrows, common winter birds, and common summer birds.

Lastly, don’t let these lists intimidate you – one of the best parts of birding is that anyone can do it!


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Where to Go

During migratory season in the spring (April-June) and in the fall (September-October), there is no better birding spot in the Chicago area, and arguably the entire Great Lakes region, than Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. If you travel further north, Illinois Beach State Park provides great birding opportunities along Lake Michigan, as well as in its expansive wetlands. Situated along the border of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, the Great Lakes region is immensely important for migratory birds.

Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water like at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Deer Grove East are great locations to find birds. But you can even witness an impressive array of birds in a local park or in your neighborhood. Be sure to post the list of everything you see on www.ebird.org, and check out their hotspot map, which shows what everyone else is seeing in your area.

Bird life in the Chicago region is breathtaking at this time of year, so have a wonderful time on your trip – be it in your own neighborhood, at your local park or forest preserve, or at a larger natural area.

Finally, if you’re a photographer or avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and show the world the birds you spot! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on Openlands’ stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

For more information, please contact schools@openlands.org.

Birds in my Neighborhood Explores Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.

Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.


Birds, Bison, and Bunkers

The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.

“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.

Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!

In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.

Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!


An Important Grassland Habitat

Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.

For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.

When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.

“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.

Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.


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Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.

Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.


Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.

If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact schools@openlands.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

Building School Gardens Workshops Prepare CPS for Spring

Maintaining a school garden year after year is a challenge, and Openlands is proud that over 90% of our Building School Gardens schools are still using their school gardens, some of which are over ten years old! Through Building School Gardens, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to the hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.

Openlands continues to support 58 Chicago Public Schools each year through garden team consultations, stewardship days, and additional education programming like Birds in my Neighborhood® and Eco-Explorations. One of the most impactful ways we help our school gardeners is through Building School Gardens workshops.

Held throughout the year at Building School Gardens schools, these workshops give teachers and garden team members tools that help them to maintain the garden, and to use the schoolyard as a part of class lessons, and it provides garden teams with a networking opportunity. Openlands uses an annual survey to drive the content of workshops, but a typical year-long schedule includes training on building and maintaining a garden team, stewarding a school garden, curriculum connections, and garden tours.


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In the fall of 2016, Building School Gardens met at Webster Elementary’ s new garden to share STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) lessons. In the winter, Franklin Fine Arts hosted a workshop on Art in the Garden, where participants learned how to make stepping stones. This spring, Tonti Elementary hosted a workshop on Vegetable Gardening Basics, and shared a lesson on Poetry in the Garden. The Tonti workshop was a smashing success, and teachers requested that we offer it in Spanish, which will happen on May 8 at Tonti. In addition to the Vegetable Gardening workshop in Spanish, Building School Gardens will coordinate a plant divide at Mark Sheridan Academy on May 20, and a training on Stewarding the School Garden at Palmer Elementary, at a date yet to be determined.

In the 2016-17 school year, over 20 Building School Gardens schools have been represented at these workshops. Several of these schools have had a very high level of participation among their garden team, and will therefore receive small stipends from Building School Gardens as an award for their efforts.


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Openlands also visited the entire staff at McPherson and Webster Elementary to provide a separate training on How and Why to Teach Outdoors. For some teachers this comes naturally, but we have found that for the others that don’t generally think about using the garden – or that don’t even know about the garden – but a special workshop on the topic can help increase the use of the outdoor space for learning.

Building School Gardens staff are beginning to create the schedule for next year’s workshops. Content will ultimately depend on survey responses from teachers, but we expect to touch on education activities related to trees and birds.


For more information on future Building School Gardens workshops, please contact schools@openlands.org.