LA GRANDE — This after-school classroom lacks walls but not inspired students who enjoy discovering the wonders of nature.
It is an unadorned pavilion on the south edge of La Grande on land owned by the Blue Mountains Conservancy. The pavilion, about 50 yards south of the currently dry Pete’s Pond, is frequently the base of the new Discover After School program for La Grande Middle School students.
It is at this pavilion that students put their creativity and ingenuity on display while working on projects, many of them artistic, that incorporate elements of the outdoors. The projects students are involved in include painting mountain scenes, making nature looms composed of plants and feathers of Rio Grande turkeys that roost in nearby trees, digital photography, and adding plants to the Pete’s Pond landscape.
“This is where students can learn a broad range of things through nature,” said Carrie Caselton Lowe, a leader of the Discover After School program who is contracted with Art Center East, which is helping put on the program with the La Grande Parks Department, Cook Memorial Library the Greater Oregon Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program, also known as GO STEM.
The projects students are taking on are all of their own choosing.
“We want them to engage in something they want to do,” Caselton Lowe said.
Caselton Lowe is joined in running the Discover After School program by Meghan Ballard, who is also contracted by Art Center East, and McKayla Rollins of the La Grande Parks and Recreation Department.
The program, Caselton Lowe said, is off to a promising start based upon its average of 10 to 15 students per session and the noteworthy quality of work they are doing.
Kyler Petersen is among the students attending the sessions. The eighth grader enjoys the opportunity the program provides to learn to learn new things, but he enjoys something else more.
“The best part of it is making friends and socializing,” the LMS student said.
Petersen and all students in Discover After School walk to Pete’s Pond after class, a distance of about 2 miles. Along the way the students pick up litter. They may later make it into a sculpture-like piece of art, Caselton Lowe said.
To date, five sessions have been completed with the final one for the fall planned for Thursday, Oct. 21. Students will be involved in planting vegetation native to Northeastern Oregon at the final fall session.
Students in the after-school program have also been planting this fall through the creation of seed balls, a group of seeds wrapped in materials such as clay and compost. The seed balls Discover After School students are making contain seeds for plants also native to Northeastern Oregon, such as Great Basin wild rye and blue bunch wheat grass. Students have been taking the seed balls they made home and then tossing them into areas were they hope they will take root.
Another session of Discover After School will be conducted in the spring. Pete’s Pond will be one of the sites where six spring sessions will be conducted.
Students will have a chance to see how the pond has come back to life aquatically speaking during some of the sessions. Pete’s Pond is dry now but starting in late fall rain and snow will begin to fill it.
Observing the pond’s transformation as a body of water, Caselton Lowe said, will provide students a chance to develop an enhanced appreciation of nature’s ebbs and flows.
“They will see things from a different perspective,” she said.