Clayton County BEST students create slice of greenspace

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Students Quintin Schaffer and Kolten Keene rake while Central Superintendent Nick Trenkamp uses a leaf blower during efforts to clear the prairie patch through burning. (Photo by Central Tatler)

Central Clayton County BEST students Billie Reick and Emma Zamora rake to restore the prairie patch located along the Turkey River next to the school playground. (Photo by Central Tatler)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


A little slice of greenspace, or a prairie patch as some would call it, is located along the Turkey River next to Central’s playground. The once maintained spot of nature has been left to the devices of weather and time, since the most recent flood a few years ago, becoming overgrown by brush, shrubs and tiny trees. It simply got lost in the shuffle of teachers leaving, students graduating and an out-of-sight, out-of-mind reality post-flood. 


However, all of that changed two weeks ago, when a group of students in Central’s Clayton County BEST (CCB) class undertook the project of restoring the prairie patch, cleaning it up, maintaining it and turning it into a spot for walking, learning and interacting with nature. 


Leading the project are Billie Reick, Emma Zamora, Quintin Schaffer and Kolten Keene, who settled on the prairie after brainstorming ideas with teachers, including new CCB teacher Mrs. Hayzlett, who joined Central this year and is an enthusiast for greenspaces, having helped establish a learning garden at her previous school. It was also a motivation for the students, specifically Billie and Kolten, who took part in an interview to discuss the background, goals and future of the prairie patch. 


This project rests on their affection for the outdoors and creating a space for people and local wildlife, like bunnies and butterflies, to explore. Some of this wasn’t possible with the overgrowth that accrued. Then there is the fact clearing the prairie patch also allows for the return of pollinators, something that cannot easily be overlooked. There is a social, as well as an environmental, impact of restoring the area. 


In the early stages of the project, which started during the second week of school, the students joked the most difficult task was contacting city hall, to know about land boundaries and get the go-ahead on the project. They also contacted others, like the DNR and Clayton County Conservation Resource Manager Kenny Slocum. It was Billie who did most of the contacting, either via calls or emails. 


From there, they group made a plan to restore the prairie patch, determining what tools, materials and methods would work best for clearing it. Once that was done, they decided what should be planted, something Slocum helped with quite a bit, suggesting a mix of prairie grasses and wildflowers. When it came to what they were going to plant, Kolten took charge of the research, along with Mrs. Hayzlett.


Then the students surveyed the site, looking at what needed to be mowed, removed or chopped down. When it came time to clear the prairie patch, they anticipated doing a controlled burn to handle the tall grass and leaves, but, due to the weather, were unsuccessful. However, they still managed to get the job done through a team effort, which included superintendent Nick Trenkamp on chainsaw and principal Aaron Reinhart on the mower. 


Meanwhile, some of the students, including Billie and Emma, raked, while others carried debris into the wooded area nearby. Quintin chopped down the tiny trees with his hatchet, removing around a dozen in total. 


With that portion of the project complete, the students look toward planting, which will be done in the coming weeks, weather permitting. There is also a list of ambitious endeavors thought up by Billie, who wants to put in signs and identification markers noting which plants are growing in the prairie patch, as well as possibly clearing a walking path and perhaps a bench. 


The idea behind the signs, which Billie is in the process of designing, is for community children or elementary classrooms to use for a learning experience. 


Additionally, Billie brought up the potential of establishing a buddy system that pairs high school students with an elementary student to do “buddy walks” through the prairie patch, sit on the bench, build friendships and strengthen school bonds. Hayzlett added the prairie patch could serve as a “restorative experience” for both the students and the community.


“There’s a lot of research out there that talks about the health benefits of green spaces, so I think that’s pretty important too,” Hayzlett said. 


On this point, Hayzlett is not wrong, as the addition of greenspace is known to have benefits in a number of areas, including mental health, academic improvement and an overall reduction in depression, anxiety and stress. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2023, which focused on greenspace around schools in California, “contact with nature is positively associated with sustained and selective attention, working memory and processing speed among school aged children.” 


The study found students who were assigned a seat by the window with views of greenspace “exhibited higher attentional functioning and demonstrated increased recovery from stressful experiences.” School wide academic performance was “measurably higher” in schools with greater access to greenspace areas, and views of trees and shrubs while in school were “positively associated” with standardized test scores, graduation rates, and percentages of students planning to attend college. There was also a correlation between the amount of surrounding trees with greater math and reading achievement. 


An older study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “cognitive functions were stronger” in students who had greater access to greenspaces. The study also concluded there was a reduction of inattentiveness, while also being linked to “better mental health including lower risk of depression and anxiety in children.”


Finally, a report published earlier this year by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land concluded contact with nature reduced stress, restored attentiveness, improved immune function, reduced anxiety and depression and aided better mental concentration, while also strengthening social connections, which improves mental health. 


The prairie patch is not just a patch of grass, but land that vitally improves the lives of those around it.  


The Central prairie patch’s future rests in the hands of the students. Billie, currently a junior, vows to maintain it until she graduates and hopes to attract younger students to do the same. Through restoring the patch and turning it into a multi-functional greenspace with a learning center, walking path and benches, the space will also be open to the public and encourage future CCB students or others to take an active role in the prairie patch’s upkeep. 


Reflecting back on the experience, both Kolten and Billie would like to see the prairie patch continue long after they’re gone, when they can look back and think about the “memories and moments” they shared while spending almost an hour clearing out a little patch of earth for others to enjoy. 

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