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Sign Unveiling Celebrates Collaborative Project with King Middle School Students

Braving freezing temperatures, students and teachers from King Middle School joined leaders from Portland Parks, Maine Audubon, US Fish and Wildlife, and others to unveil a new interpretive sign about an ongoing project in Deering Oaks park early in the morning on Wednesday, November 17. A short ceremony included remarks from various partners about the project and its importance, as well as a ribbon cutting to present the site to the community.

The school and several partners adopted an area in Deering Oaks in 2019 to restore and study wildlife habitat. In partnership with Maine Audubon, US Fish and Wildlife, and others, students and teachers at King Middle School have adopted this site to practice and promote environmental stewardship. In particular, they are restoring habitat for birds and other wildlife by restoring a native forest understory to replace acres of lawn, which is relatively devoid of direct benefits to Maine wildlife. 
Ribbon cutting at Deering Oaks

Students who did plantings and worked on the site while they were in middle school returned to the park today for the ceremony, excited to see how their plants were doing and to celebrate the project. King Middle School teacher David Mann, one of the teachers who led the original project, said it was an uplifting moment. “These are the projects that matter,” he said, and he hopes to be able to return to the park with students in the spring.  

As the new sign explains, “for King students and for the city, this site is a ‘living laboratory.’ Students research what plants grow well, what animals are benefitting, how the site changes, and how it compares to other sites.  What they learn can then be shared and used with other communities.”  

While the pandemic and remote learning slowed direct collaboration last year, Portland Parks has continued to maintain the site as a “no mow” area, except for paths that meander through the area, by various sign posts with QR codes—digital links to videos about native plant restoration made by King Middle School students that can be viewed by visitors with smart devices.

Caitlin Leclair, King Middle School Principal, at ribbon cutting ceremony at Deering Oaks
Caitlin Leclair, King Middle School Principal, at ribbon cutting ceremony at Deering Oaks

Caitlin LeClair, the principal at King Middle School, said the unveiling of the sign represents a sort of return to normalcy for students and teachers there.  “As an expeditionary learning school, King has focused our teaching around community collaboration, learning in public, and engaging students in hands-on fieldwork for decades. The COVID pandemic has certainly impacted these approaches over the past two school years. The unveiling of the sign is a great reminder for our students and faculty that our work continues and matters for the neighborhoods and communities around us,” LeClair said.

The school has also partnered with Southern Maine Conservation Collaborative to add a new Climate Change Observatory picture post at the site.  Visitors can use the mount on top of the post to take a picture, and then can submit the photo to what will become a timelapse view of the site over time.

Ethan Hipple, Portland’s Director of Parks, Recreation & Facilities, told students about his experience planting trees when he was in school and how he still returns to see those trees. He said he hoped they too would do the same, or even better, wind up finding careers in conservation, stewardship, or environmental education. 

Eric Topper, Maine Audubon’s Director of Education, who hosted the event, talked about how it began as a straightforward wildlife habitat restoration project and turned into an exciting collaboration that involved middle school students, city park officials and staff, and federal biologists. Students, however, seemed most impressed with the giant scissors used to cut the ribbon! 

Eric Topper and Caitlin Leclair
Eric Topper and Caitlin Leclair at Deering Oaks ribbon cutting