Learning environment: Taunton Forge Elementary makes the most of its Pinelands setting

Phillip Gardella, 10, a fifth grader at Taunton Forge Elementary School, peers through a magnifying glasson the school grounds, in an emerging grassland area that used to bea parking lot.
Phillip Gardella, 10, a fifth grader at Taunton Forge Elementary School, peers through a magnifying glasson the school grounds, in an emerging grassland area that used to bea parking lot.
Posted: December 26, 2010

It was a snake's turn to be the charmer one recent afternoon at Medford's Taunton Forge Elementary School, and Gaia, a buff-and-black beauty, did not disappoint.

A study in serpentine grace, she undulated through the arms and hands of wildlife ecologist Jeanne Gural. Her quicksilver tongue flicked in and out. She almost seemed to welcome the gentle touches of little fingers. In a snaky sort of way, she was actually kind of cute.

"Arrrrr," cooed some of the girls, as boys leaned forward in their seats to get a better view.

But Gaia, whose official job title is wildlife ambassador, wasn't just another pretty snake. Gaia is a northern pine snake, Gural explained, a threatened species native to places like the New Jersey Pinelands, which surround the children's school.

"If we lose our Pinelands habitat, we'll lose someone like this," Gural said.

More and more, the students and staff at Taunton are heeding the call of the wild.

You can see it. On the day of Gural's visit with her snake, members of the school's expanding environmental club toiled outside in the crisp air on an ongoing project - reclaiming what had for years been an eyesore of a parking area and restoring it as a grassland habitat.

Native animals have already come to call, four-legged teachable moments.

There's more:

Plans are in the works to create rain gardens, with native plants that help manage storm runoff.

The whole student body - about 345 boys and girls - gathered recently to witness the release of a red-tailed hawk that had been injured and nursed back to health.

Recycling plastic bags that will one day be building material is a schoolwide effort.

All of which wasn't always the case for this kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school, built in 1976 in the middle of 19 acres of protected Pinelands.

For most of its existence, the school struggled with its environment, said principal Sherry Weinberg.

With the Pinelands' high water table, the land tends to be damp, and moisture encroaches on the school. Some classrooms have dehumidifiers.

Plus there was that parking lot - a mowed area between two protected stands of trees. The land got boggy at times. Cars got in, but couldn't get out; tow trucks were called. When it rained, other parts of school grounds also turned mucky and puddlesome.

Of course, there was a flip side to all this hassle: The school sits in the middle of an ecological wonderland.

"Finally, we decided, 'What the heck? Let's see what the benefits are,' " Weinberg said.

That epiphany came last school year. Wilderness-loving math teacher Michael Ahearn said he and three other teachers had banded together to start an environmental club for fourth and fifth graders. Weinberg said the school had gotten the OK from the Pinelands Commission to work on returning the tar pit of a parking area to its natural state.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance helped the school get some native plants, and a staff member came out to talk to the children. Taunton got a "thumbs up" from the alliance in its 2010 State of the Pinelands Report.

The school's wildlife neighbors, apparently also liking what they see, have been dropping by - grazing deer, rabbits, turtles, ducks - often sparking discussion and learning. This fall, school janitor Bou Keovilay snapped a photo of a turkey vulture perched majestically on the school flagpole.

Last year, the students started the ongoing plastic-bag recycling project that doubles as a math exercise - counting and graphs - and a lesson in environmental citizenship. The bags will eventually be turned into material to make a residential deck.

"They're making a contribution," Weinberg said. "A 5-year-old can make a difference."

Gural, director of the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford and partner of Gaia the snake, has been working since September with the school on the grassland habitat - a wetlands meadow, to be specific.

In addition, she will help the students create rain gardens. "The rain garden is a way to get the students learning about ecology and help solve a problem," Gural said.

Art classes will decorate the rain barrels. Gural will seek grants to fund the efforts.

Meanwhile, the sight of the environmental club in action has resulted in a membership growth spurt.

"There's an excitement, and [students] can see things happen," Ahearn said. "They love digging holes. They love getting dirty - all the things they can't do at home."

The hope is to create something lasting - both for the Pinelands and for the children.

"As this habitat takes hold, teachers are going to go out there with their classes," Weinberg said. "It will become an outdoor classroom."

In time, other Medford schools may want to take their students to visit and learn, and community members may do so as well, she said. One local grandfather has taken to picking up trash that blows into the evolving habitat.

The Taunton students, meanwhile, are solidly sold on their mission.

"I like that I get to learn a lot more, and I get to do all this work and it ends up something great," said fifth grader Kylie Taylor, an environmental club member.

"As you're working around," said Jessica Metzger, also in the fifth grade and the club, "you realize there's ways to save the environment."

Plus, you get to pet a snake.


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

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