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.

Eco-Explorations Takes Students Beyond the Classroom

If you visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve in Fort Sheridan during a weekday this autumn, chances are you shared the preserve with a gaggle of schoolchildren as well, but they were visiting for more than a leisurely stroll.

These students were trying their hand at being naturalists by recording their observations of the preserve. They observed seasonal changes and compared the microclimates of the ravine, shoreline, and bluff areas. In preparation for their visits, students modeled the process of erosion in the classroom so they could better understand the impacts of erosion on-site. These trips allowed students to engage with nature while also helping teachers to meet the science curriculum expectations of the new Next Generation Science Standards.

This outdoor classroom experience is part of Openlands’ Eco-Explorations program. Eco-Explorations brings third grade, fourth grade, and high school classes out to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve for experiential environmental education. This autumn, over 500 students have visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve through Eco-Explorations.

For many students, these trips are the highlight of the school year. For some, it is the first time they have visited the Lake Michigan shoreline.

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Classes that participate in Eco-Explorations are from a Chicago school that has partnered with Openlands through Building School Gardens. Twenty classes are participating this year, and each one will return to the preserve in the spring to continue their observations, as well as to study the preserve’s rare plants and birds.

Openlands is committed to engaging the next generation of naturalists through programs such as these. Thanks to generous funding from the Grainger Foundation, Eco-Explorations is in its sixth year.

The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is a public nature preserve and is open year-round free of charge. Plan your own visit.

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.

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

Young People Explore Nature in the Calumet Region

Connecting young people to nature where they live is vital to creating our planet’s future stewards. This year, Openlands offered three very different opportunities for kids and young adults to get outside in the Calumet region, a unique, bi-state ecosystem in the Lake Michigan basin composed of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna.


calbiodiverRich habitat for all kinds of species characterized the Calumet before the region was settled and industrialized. Openlands worked with Valparaiso University students from 2013-2015 to see what kinds of aquatic life and stream habitat are present in the headwaters of several Calumet region streams that drain into Lake Michigan. We found some surprises, including rare native lamprey and tiny young-of-the-year coho salmon. The stream habitats were beautiful and unusually high-quality because we focused the work in natural areas managed by conservation oriented organizations. In addition to interesting fish and reptiles we also found some very distinctive aquatic insect larva. These including caddisfly larva that use pieces of stick to make cases in which they live,  making them look like tiny sticks that walk. The health of headwater areas, or the area where streams begin, is very important to the health of the entire stream system and the water bodies into which the streams drain.  In addition to seeing what life the headwaters support, we noted any conditions that could be addressed to make the headwaters healthier, for example, areas where road salt might be degrading water quality or areas where habitat for aquatic species is partially cut off from the rest of the stream by barriers like culverts that fish may have difficultly swimming through.

Since 2014, Openlands has also been connecting Calumet residents to nature in their communities through birding trips. In 2014, Ms. Mack’s 4th grade class from Lavizzo Elementary participated in Birds In My Neighborhood®, and was among a select group to visit Lake Calumet for a birding adventure highlighted by the appearance of two bald eagles.

BIMN1In 2015, in addition to a return to Lake Calumet, her class took a field trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the northeast edge of the Calumet region – only a 40 minute drive from the school. Birds In My Neighborhoodvolunteers escorted students and their families on a day trip to West Beach and the Douglas Environmental Education Center at Indiana Dunes. For all but one father, this was the first time any of the students or family members had visited the Dunes. The students were excited throughout the day as they played games and practiced using binoculars to find birds. By visiting a new place to practice birding with parents, grandparents, and cousins, the students had a positive and memorable experience in nature. In 2016, Openlands hopes to create similar opportunities for weekend bird walks for Birds in My Neighborhood families. We hope to make what one young lady referred to as “the best field trip ever” a recurring event.


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Openlands has also been partnering to offer explorations of calumet waterways via canoe and kayak since 2014.  On June 13, we partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County to offer paddling at Fishin’ Buddies’ Beaubien Woods Celebration.  About 250 mostly local Calumet residents paddled, many for the first time, and explored Beaubien Woods’ Flatfoot Lake from canoes, looking for evidence of beaver presence on the lake, including searching for lodges and gnawed trees and learning a little bit about the history of the landscape.  It was a beautiful day and Flatfoot lake was literally sparking.  One of the participants said that the paddling was the “jewel of the festival.”

These recent Openlands efforts are part of our robust history of connecting the people of the Calumet Region to nature by increasing public access to open space, empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources, and promoting a regional culture of conservation by developing an interconnected network of protected and productive green ways, water trails and open spaces.

Protecting Chicago’s Second Shoreline

A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.

Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.


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Managing stormwater to help our rivers

One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.

MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through the Space to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.


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Strengthening regulations

The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.


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The work continues

This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.

We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.

Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.