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Students at T.G. Smith Elementary in Springdale may be the key to building back habitat for monarch butterflies in Northwest Arkansas through the school’s latest effort to produce milkweed and distribute it to flower beds and gardens throughout their school district.
Last year, students were involved in a grant funded by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Wildlife Fine Money Grant Program to plant milkweed (the host plant for monarchs) on school grounds to encourage monarchs and other butterflies to stop and feed along their annual migration. The money for this grant was all derived from fines collected from people who were convicted of wildlife and boating violations in Washington County.
Susan Jones, an art teacher who has been at the school since 1986 applied for and manages the grant and milkweed project.
“We grow the milkweed right here in the classroom,” Jones said. “We used grant money to buy hydroponics systems that the students can see and I work with them to plant seeds and transfer the plants once they’re ready. A lot of the students really enjoyed watching the plants grow from seed to plant.”
The project is truly “spreading like a weed,” with students taking some of the milkweed they grow at the school home to be planted in their own flower beds and gardens.
“We’ve also found a few types of caterpillars on our plants,” Jones said. “We placed them in special butterfly towers to watch their metamorphosis and then released them.”
A visit to the school will reveal that the butterfly project is only one of many inventive efforts by Jones and other school staff to use wildlife fine money grants to bring the outdoors to their students. In the rear of the school, visitors will see an extensive outdoor classroom with native trees and plants positioned along a walkway that would make many arboretums green with envy.
Jones has applied for and received many grants through this program, totalling nearly $29,000 from 2007-2023, all of which was instrumental in developing the school’s outdoor classroom and habitat laboratory. But she didn’t stop there. Tens of thousands of dollars have originated from many other public and private organizations, including the Arkansas Forestry Commission, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Weyerhaeuser, the Ozark Society Foundation and even Walmart and Lowe’s. Add in thousands of hours of volunteer work from community members and material donations from local businesses and you begin to see the monumental support the school has seen to spread the message of conservation to its students.
“I’ve worked really hard to gather as many grants as we could and even got some funding through a Lowe’s grant to help with the outdoor classroom,” Jones said. “The students love the outdoor learning experience, and the latest project is just one more way we’re trying to keep nature on their minds.”
T.G. Smith’s transformation under Jones’s care and coordination is a prime example of how educators can turn wildlife violations into positive experiences for students using grants available from the AGFC and Arkansas Economic Development Commission. It’s only one of the many ways the AGFC can help teachers bring the outdoors into the classroom for their students.
Sheila Lovelady-Connerly is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s School Connections Program coordinator. In addition to programs like the Schoolyard Habitat Program like Jones has used, she’s the contact person to get started with Project WILD (Wildlife In Learning Design) and the growing Outdoor Adventures Program to offer curriculums for everything from an occasional lesson to a full-blown semester course in outdoor education.
“The grants can also be used for programs like Fishing in the Natural State (FINS), Archery in the Schools and the Youth Shooting Sports Programs,” Connerly said. “All of our programs are a great way to enrich your students’ learning experience with lessons that speak to many students who may otherwise be difficult to engage. Nature has a way of helping many students come out of their shell.”
Visit www.agfc.com/en/education/classroom to learn more about AGFC wildlife education grants and programs available for teachers. You can also contact Connerly directly at [email protected] to get started bringing the outdoors to your classroom.