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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.

Volunteers Step up for Schools and Birds

Spring is right around the corner, which means Birds in my Neighborhood® is already looking for volunteers! Birds in my Neighborhood, a partnership between Openlands and Audubon-Great Lakes, is a volunteer-driven program for grades 2 through 5 with the goal of acquainting students with nature in their community through the observation of birds.

Do you love birds? Would you consider sharing that interest with Chicago Public School children on a field trip? We need volunteers to help run the program! The commitment is minimal and certainly rewarding. New volunteers attend three trainings which each correspond to one of the three sessions with students. After attending the trainings, volunteers are assigned in pairs of two to a classroom and connected to the teacher to schedule dates for the three sessions.

Over the next several months, each volunteer will visit a group of students in their classroom, with a smile and a few simple questions:

“What do you know about birds?” or “What birds have you seen?”


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Students will each research a bird that lives in their community, like a cardinal or a house sparrow. The combination of visiting with volunteers and conducting their own investigation on a particular bird is what really opens students’ eyes to the natural world around them.

The teachers in Birds in my Neighborhood classes always comment about how the students are so enthused about birds after meeting with the volunteers the first time, and often times we hear stories of students noticing birds on their way to and from school, or at their home. To hear one of these stories yourself, listen to Ms. Caponigro, from Peck Elementary in West Elsdon.

“One visit from Birds in my Neighborhood and these kids are seeing birds everywhere!”

– Ms. Caponigro, Peck Elementary


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When the volunteers return for a second visit they will check the students’ research and take them on a bird walk in their schoolyard. In May, as a culmination of the program, volunteers will lead students on a bird walk at a park or forest preserve near their school, such as Jackson Park, Humboldt Park, or Whistler Woods.

If you are interested in getting involved in Birds in my Neighborhood, there is still time. We are always looking for willing adults to help with field trips and to assist this great program that is reaching 1500 students across Chicago.

For more information, please contact schools@openlands.org or call 312.863.6276. If you are simply looking to spy birds on your own, we highly recommend you plan a visit to Montrose Point.

Openlands Director of Regional Forestry Accepted into Civic Leadership Academy

Daniella Pereira, Openlands’ Director of Regional Forestry, has been accepted into the 2017 class of the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago. Pereira’s acceptance into the program serves as recognition of her expertise in forestry and her substantial work to connect residents of Chicago to their urban forest. Through education and engagement, Pereira hopes to raise greater awareness of the conservation issues that face our region.

“My personal goal is to connect more urban people to appreciating and stewarding green spaces in their communities,” says Pereira. “Unless a child is introduced to nature when they are young, it is difficult to appreciate nature, let alone advocate for it.”

Having joined Openlands in 2013, Daniella oversees the sustainable expansion of our Forestry programs, creates and strengthens strategic partnerships, collaborates on urban forestry policy both locally and with the State’s Urban Forestry Committee, and leads Openlands’ role in the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.


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The Civic Leadership Academy is an interdisciplinary leadership development program for emerging and high-potential leaders in nonprofit organizations and local government agencies within the City of Chicago and Cook County. The highly selective program, which accepted only 30 of 150 applicants in 2017, is designed to develop a pipeline of talented leaders to help nonprofits and government agencies thrive. Pereira’s involvement with the program will examine the best ways to engage local leaders with residents and how to best leverage the city’s resources in care of the urban forest.

“If people find value in being outside, they will be open to stewarding green space as part of their civic duty,” adds Pereira. “The conduit that I would like to make is giving missed outdoor opportunities to adults by creating positive environmental policy that stimulates good-paying, green jobs and training. Investing in people can connect them to valuing nature.”

Learn more about Openlands urban forestry work.

Have You Discovered Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary?

Sitting quietly on the shores of Lake Michigan, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary – the Magic Hedge – is home to a vast array of bird species. As of January 2017 over 320 species of birds have been identified at Montrose Point. Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts recently voted the sanctuary as the best place for birding in Illinois, and one could argue that this is one of the top birding locations in the entire Great Lakes region.

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 provide stopover points for these birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents. There are many of these stop-over points within Chicago’s city limits – Jackson Park, Humboldt Park, Lake Calumet and Labagh Woods are especially active during spring and fall migration – but Montrose Point is one that stands above the rest.

A bird sanctuary that jets out into Lake Michigan serves is a funnel for birds as they travel over Lake Michigan, looking for green space that is somewhat sparse in our area. Bird lovers were the ones who gave Montrose Point the Magic Hedge nickname and for good reason. This sanctuary truly is a gem and worth discovering for yourself.

Volunteers Sow the Seeds of Hackmatack

This winter, Openlands has organized a series of volunteer workdays at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. With the help of these great volunteers, we have begun the process of restoring two sites within the boundaries of the refuge.

Hackmatack was established as a permanent National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, but from the beginning, it has been a partnership of local communities and local governments working to bring the vision to life. Friends and neighbors came together to earn the federal designation, but now the real work of building the refuge acre-by-acre has begun.


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Braving the Cold…

On the chilly morning of January 28, the Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge hosted a seed planting workday on the Perricone Tract with the help of Openlands and the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD). Volunteers spread 100 lbs of native prairie seed mix, kindly donated by FermiLab, along the site’s eastern edge, which will grow in to help restore this tract.

In 2016, Openlands purchased the Perricone Tract in Woodstock, IL as part of our ongoing work in Hackmatack. This 27-acre parcel contains remnant sedge meadow and a lovely meandering stretch of the Nippersink Creek. Openlands partnered with the Nippersink Watershed Association to protect the Perricone Tract and received a generous grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to support the site’s acquisition and restoration.

The seeding planting workday laid the foundation for more prairie restoration work in the coming spring, which will be led by our partners at MCCD and funded by our Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant.


…And Enjoying the Unseasonably Warm

Following the seed planting, a second group of volunteers, again in partnership with Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, helped begin restoration efforts at the Blackmon Tract in Richmond, an open space site in the refuge boundaries that is owned by Openlands.

Back in the fall of 2016, Openlands acquired this 11-acre site in the Tamarack Core Area of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. It contains oak woodlands, a high-quality wetland area, and wonderful opportunities for restoring native natural communities and creating public access for Hackmatack. The acquisition of the Blackmon property was made possible through the leadership and support of the Grand Victoria Foundation, which awarded a generous grant to Openlands for the land purchase.

On February 19, a hard-working group of nearly 30 people joined us on an unseasonably warm day to pick up trash and clear invasive brush from the Blackmon Tract. We were happy to count members from several groups among our volunteers, including Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Boy Scout Troop 340 from Spring Grove, and EPIC Volunteering from Palos. Spotting a bald eagle circling slowly overhead topped off a great day filled with laughter, a little bit of sweat, and a lot of sunshine.


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When restored, the landscapes protected at Hackmatack will once again offer a home to the mosaics of native plants and wildflowers, the mazes of pristine streams, and the rich variety of wildlife. Essential to Openlands’ vision is not just protecting these rare habitats, but also ensuring everyone can share in the nature at Hackmatack. Whether through participating in restoration days or by introducing best practices to support wildlife near their homes, the local residents are making great strides to restore this area for the benefit of all.


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Local partnerships make Hackmatack a unique model for conservation and our volunteers helped sow the seeds for future partnerships uniting around a shared vision for Hackmatack. We will be hosting more workdays at these sites soon. For more information, please contact Openlands Conservation Manager, Aimee Collins, at acollins@openlands.org or call 312.863.6257.

Openlands send many thanks to our volunteers for their support and to our sponsors who provide critical support for restoration!

Students Engage in Conservation Work at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

On Saturday, October 1, students and faculty from Pritzker College Prep, located in the Hermosa neighborhood, journeyed to Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge for a workday.

Twenty students joined Openlands, McHenry County Conservation District, and Sierra Club Illinois in conducting conservation work at two sites owned by Openlands in the Wildlife Refuge, the Twin Creeks and Perricone properties.  The work included planting bur oak seedlings and collecting seeds from yellow coneflower, purple coneflower, and wild bergamot.

The workday was a part of Sierra Club Illinois’ “Chicago Inspiring Connections Outdoors” program, which works to provide wilderness experiences for people who otherwise might not have them.

The students planted eight bur oak seedlings, a fire-tolerant tree that does best in open prairies, at the Twin Creeks site. Glacier Oaks Nursery, a local tree nursery located in Harvard, IL, provided the tree seedlings through a generous donation.

The students also did their seed collecting at the Twin Creeks site. Once they finished collecting seeds, they brought them to the Perricone site to spread.  Openlands is working with the McHenry County Conservation District to restore the Perricone site, and this native seed planting supports that work.

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The workday was a part of a longer weekend for the Pritzker students, who went to several sites within the refuge to camp and engage in stewardship work.

The students enjoyed their work with Openlands so much that they took it upon themselves to name the trees they planted.  They also expressed a desire to come back and see the trees and prairie plants that will grow because of them.

Openlands is excited to work with partners like the Sierra Club to host more Hackmatack workdays in the future.

Explore Your Lakes and Rivers: Mother’s Day at Ping Tom Park

Openlands’ Explore Your Lakes and Rivers series began on Mother’s Day at Ping Tom Park in Chicago’s Chinatown. This series of 11 paddling events is designed to introduce new paddlers from surrounding communities to the Chicago and Calumet waterways. The events also engage people with nature on the rivers in a way that is relevant and fun.

Openlands partnered with Wilderness Inquiry and the Ping Tom Advisory Council for this event. Wilderness Inquiry provided staff and voyager canoes through their Canoemobile program, allowing more people an opportunity to participate. While the Ping Tom Advisory Council helped to promote the event, arranged for Cantonese translation, and provided bathroom access to participants.

For the Ping Tom Park event, the community had the chance to enjoy paddling on the Chicago River, and to discover the wildlife of the park. The canoes were wheelchair accessible, providing increased access. Approximately 200 people from across the city and as far away as Wisconsin attended.

The canoeing adventures started right away on the beautiful spring morning. With a mix of ages and experience levels, groups of eight set out on the water for 30 minutes at a time to explore and have fun. They canoed past birds that flew across and floated on the river. They had the chance to capture spectacular views of the park and the city’s buildings and bridges. All the new paddlers learned quickly and some even signed up for a second trip! By the end of the event, as many as 25 canoes travelled the river.

In the courtyards of Ping Tom Park, visitors enjoyed guided bird walks led by experienced Birds In My Neighborhood (BIMN) volunteers. BIMN is an Openlands program that trains volunteers to engage Chicago Public School students in bird watching in their neighborhoods. Each group had a checklist of birds often found in the area. They searched along the paths and between the varieties of trees in the park. In just half an hour, the five tours found most of the birds on their list, such as the American Robin, the Red-winged Blackbird, and the Black-capped Chickadee. They learned how to identify a few different bird songs and discovered other wildlife in the park as well.

Many visitors were in awe of how exciting it was to explore the river and the wildlife of the park. One mother even expressed how this was the best Mother’s Day she ever had!

Openlands has free and fun Explore Your Lakes and Rivers events through September! Join us and explore the hidden wildlife and natural treasures that are just waiting to be discovered in your own backyard!

Openlands Celebrates Volunteers

Over the past year, thousands of generous individuals volunteered their time to help protect Chicagoland’s natural and open spaces. From planting trees, to adopting and monitoring water trails, to accompanying students on educational bird walks, their tireless efforts contributed to a hugely successful year.

Last week, Openlands hosted a reception at David Weinberg Photography in order to celebrate and recognize our wonderful volunteers. “Without their contributions, we truly couldn’t do what we do,” said President & CEO Jerry Adelmann at the event.

Volunteers were recognized for their involvement in programs such as Space to GrowTreeKeepers, and Birds in My Neighborhood, as well as for the seemingly less glamorous task of stuffing envelopes and writing handwritten personal letters to our donors.

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The numbers behind their involvement are impressive:

  • Last fall, students, teachers, staff, administration,  parents, and community members all came together in rain or shine to help plant 30,000 plants in four Space to Grow schoolyards.
  • Openlands raised nearly $300,000 from handwritten letters to our donors, which directly supports our general operations for the organization each year.
  • Last year 5,060 volunteers dedicated 35,567 hours of work to forestry activities.
  • Birds in My Neighborhood’s dedicated corps of over 50 volunteers mentored 725 Chicago Public School students on a quest to learn more about the birds (and nature) in their own community.

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The hard work and dedication of our volunteers is what keeps Openlands thriving. We can’t thank them enough! And many thanks to David Weinberg Photography for hosting the event.

West Side Birding Story

As a new staff member at Openlands, I’d love to share with you the game changing environmental outreach happening in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods. This was my first year as a volunteer with Birds in My Neighborhood® (BIMN), an Openlands’ program that engages elementary school students at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through our Building School Gardens initiative. Birding volunteers like myself are trained as classroom ‘birding’ teachers and paired with wonderful schools, often in underserved areas. In three visits, we aim to open the eyes of students and teachers to the abundance of nature that exists all around them.  During the first visit, we conduct a classroom lesson with the children and provide them with their very own BIMN journals to research a bird of their choosing. During the second visit, we take our first bird walk around the school premises. The last gathering culminates with a field trip to a local nature area where we find new and interesting birds. What an amazing experience!


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Openlands board member Dean Fischer and I were paired with Ms. Gorzen’s 4th and 5th grade class at Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School in East Garfield Park (a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side.) For our first visit, we asked the class what they already knew about birds and what they would like to learn during our time together. You would be amazed at how much these kids knew! “What’s another thing you know about birds?” I asked. “The male Bird of Paradise does an elaborate courtship dance for the female Bird of Paradise” one child answered, followed by a host of similar responses. At the end of our time, our students were pumped about ornithology, and excited to research their bird of choice in their new BIMN journals!

When Dean and I returned for the second visit, the kids were thrilled to see us again and eager to share their research and drawings. Ms. Gorzen happily exclaimed, “It has been a task trying to pull them away from their journals all month!” Check out this stunning piece of artwork in a students journal:

We then packed our birding check lists and quietly ventured to the school gardens to see what we could find. It was the end of April and spring migration was in full swing. A group of girls huddled around me to observe my actions. I was able to teach them how to identify birds looking at their shape, size, field marks, colors, and habitat. They caught on quickly!

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“Up there,” one girl whispered. “I see a small one in the tree with black and white stripes on its head, a little yellow, and a white chin.” “That’s a special one that’s not on our check list,” I replied. “A white throated sparrow.” As a parting line, Dean announced to the class, “Each of you are now ‘Citizen Scientists’. Now that you know how to identify birds,” he said, “you can collect data to help protect our environment. You are smart and have an awesome responsibility ahead of you.” “Cool” the class responded, feeling a part of something special.

On May 28, we embarked on our final field trip to Humboldt Park.  A vibrant green space nestled within the city, Humboldt Park boasts a diverse habitat of trees, lagoons, and fields – all prime birding real estate. Our species list included Common Terns, a Black Crowned Night Heron, Barn Swallows, Chimney Swifts, Gulls, European Starlings, Red Winged Blackbirds, and more. The class stood in awe as we watched a Garter snake slide in front of us and up a fence.

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At the end of the trip, we settled in the grass for lunch, basking in the glory of our perfect spring day. A beautiful moment arose when a student, who we were told had barely spoken a few words at a time all year, burst into joyful song, amazing his teachers and peers. A volunteer from Audubon Chicago Region, our BIMN partner, took some time to flip through a Sibley’s Field Guide with a child who had been diligently researching the Peregrine Falcon.

I want you to know that you make this possible. Often with underserved communities in the city, you see children hunger for nature since it is generally not within their grasp. Because of your support of Openlands’ programs, we are able to feed that hunger, ignite a passion for the abundant world of nature around them, and nurture the environmental stewards of tomorrow.

“Now that I know about this park with all these trees and ponds,” a young girl said at the end of our trip, “I’m going to tell my mom to bring me here. She’ll tell all her friends, and they’ll put it all over Facebook, and soon everyone will know about this place.”

-By Tasha Lawson