A special Earth Day for Camas school

Skyridge marks completion of new native plant garden

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

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CAMAS — Hundreds of students gathered outside Skyridge Middle School on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate Earth Day with the completion of a new native plant garden.

It was a festive scene just after 2 p.m. outside the school library as the Skyridge Jazz Band played upbeat tunes, the Skyhawk mascot peered over the rooftop to greet everyone, and students clapped and cheered. Principal Aaron Smith took a moment to speak about the history of a particularly significant native plant — the camas lily — before he and Associate Principal Clint Williams knelt to plant the last two camas lilies in the Skyridge Lewis and Clark native plant garden.

The ceremony marked the end of a project two years in the making that involved more than 150 students, said Gayle Cooper, a seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher. Some students put plants and boulders directly into the soil, and many participated in the process of selecting just the right plant species for the spot.

Where a plain patch of grass once stood outside the school's library, now beds of rhododendrons, trillium, vine maples and other native plants line a new zig-zag gravel pathway. Cooper also plans to add a couple of rustic arbors, benches, some birdhouses and perhaps an owl or bat house to the garden, she said.

About two years ago, Cooper began working on gathering funding and donations of supplies for the project. She managed to secure a $1,500 grant from the Camas Education Fund and another $500 grant from the Clark County Department of Environmental Services.

Meanwhile, her students researched the vast variety of Washington's native plant species, looking for what they would want to put in the garden. Once they had made their picks, Cooper purchased the plants, and her students made a dossier of scientific names, growing habits and other information about the species.

"This had a historical connection to our curriculum, as well as being something that we wanted to do for the environment," Cooper said. "We study, in seventh grade, Washington state history, and part of that is Lewis and Clark."

As the two renowned explorers made their way through the Pacific Northwest in 1805 and 1806, they kept journals of the native plants they spotted, naming many of the species, Cooper said. This year, her students researched the plants, and they'll make a book about them so people can learn about what they see in the garden.

A number of district officials and city leaders showed up to commemorate the new garden and share a few thoughts. Superintendent Mike Nerland handed out appreciation awards for volunteers, and congratulated the students on Skyridge's recent recognition by the Washington Green Schools program as one of the most environmentally sustainable schools in the state.

Mayor Scott Higgins also expressed his pride in the students' work.

"You found something you could do to help make things better on this planet," Higgins said. "So, I'm proud of you, and I'm happy to be a part of it. Happy Earth Day."