Friday, July 27, 2012

North Lawndale College Prep Students Work to Restore Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

By Ann Baskerville

Thanks to support from the National Forest Foundation, eight graduates from North Lawndale College Prep High School are working on restoration and conservation projects at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie this summer.  

In 2011 Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was named part of the National Forest Foundation’s Treasured Landscapes campaign.  The focus of the campaign is to restore forests and Americans' connection to these public lands.  The National Forest Foundation is a non-profit organization charted by Congress and focused on connecting people to their National Forests. 

“As part of the National Forest Foundation’s Treasured Landscapes campaign, we have made it a priority to connect urban residents and youth to our spectacular National Forest System,” said National Forest Foundation’s President Bill Possiel. “Thanks to a generous donor, we were able to give a team of high school youth from the Chicago area the chance to help transform Midewin, while they gain a better appreciation for our forests and 

The connection between the two organizations began when North Lawndale College Prep's President John Horan learned through a National Forest Foundation connection that the Foundation was looking for students from Chicago to come and work on conservation at Midewin.  North Lawndale College Prep develops many partnerships and grants of this sort to provide real-world enrichment opportunities for students so the Midewin program was a great fit.  The students were recruited from North Lawndale College Prep's environmental science class and had to go through an interview process.  The students had already studied some aspects of conservation through the classroom and were ready to take their knowledge to the field.

North Lawndale College Prep High School is a charter school in the City of Chicago with an enrollment of 900 students in grades 9-12.  97% of the students are from the neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago.  The mission of North Lawndale College Prep High School is to prepare young people from under-resourced communities for graduation from high school with the academic skills and personal resilience necessary for successful completion of college.  According to Skye Nicholson, North Lawndale College Prep High School Science Chairperson and faculty leader for the students working at Midewin, the students working at Midewin are gaining the academic and real-world skills that allow students to succeed in college and in the work world.  Each day the students travel beyond the comforts of usual surroundings to the more rural environment of Midewin.  Through interacting with professionals such as botanists, environmental scientists, and recreation specialists at Midewin, students gain valuable communication skills, practice scientific research techniques such as measurement and data collection, and discover many career paths related to forest restoration and management.

North Lawndale College Prep High School graduates Caprisha Treadwell and Jade Pillow are two of the students working at Midewin this summer.  The students said a typical day starts with the drive from Chicago, then the students "stop and pick up our assignment for the day, then we head to the field."  Field assignments have included: tracking and documenting bug populations, measuring grass growth throughout the summer, studying why certain birds pick areas to nest, planting native species, and removing invasive species.  With 19,000 acres, removing invasive species is one of the biggest jobs at Midewin.  Students have removed invasive plants such as parsnip and teasal.  According to Midewin's website: "Fire suppression and lack of management have allowed noxious weeds and invasive species to invade Midewin's ecosystems.  Noxious weeds and invasive species pose an increasing threat to native ecosystems and reduce the effectiveness of ecosystem restoration by competing with desired species for light, nutrients, and water.  They alter habitat structure, contaminate native seed production, and alter hydrologic regimes in certain wetlands."

The native species planted by the students were grown in Midewin's own native seed beds.  The seed beds--some located off River Road and some located near Turtle Pond along Chicago Road--allow Midewin to collect seed to use in prairie restoration.  Planting native prairie plants was one of student Jade Pillow's favorite parts of her job.  Pillow stated: "It's fun to be part of restoring prairie plants."

Left to Right: Student Jade Pillow, Student Caprisha Treadwell, and faculty advisor Skye Nicholson at Midewin's River Road Native Seed Beds

For student Caprisha Treadwell, her favorite part of working at Midewin was learning about the history of the land that is Midewin.  Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was formerly the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.  The Arsenal was created in 1941 and produced a majority of the TNT used by the US Army during World War II.   Many of the buildings used to store TNT and other products still exist.  Treadwell stated: "At first I didn't know what the buildings were, they were huge."  During their first days on the job, Treadwell and the other students toured Midewin and learned of the Joliet Arsenal's history.  Treadwell observed that the bunkers--also called "igloos", concrete structures covered dirt and grass which were used to store ammunition--remained cool even when the temperature reached the high 90s as it has this summer.   

Students also discovered evidence of the farm families who lived on the land before the Joliet Arsenal was developed.  Students cleared brush from the edges of Midewin's pioneer cemeteries.  The National Forest service took over the perpetual care of the cemeteries when the land was transfered to Midewin.  Students also helped clear brush from the foundation of a home built during the Civil War era.  Both students and faculty leader Nicholson agreed it is important to retain the history of the farm families.                         

                                                                 Klingler Cemetery in Midewin

Both Pillow and Treadwell are headed to college in the fall.  Treadwell stated she originally planned to major in environmental engineering, and is now also interested in pursuing classes in environmental science and investigating applying for the Peace Corps after college.  Pillow is exploring different majors and also considering joining the military in the future.  Whatever path they take, students have gained critical vocational skills throughout the summer.  Treadwell stated she has learned to wake up on time, wear appropriate clothing, and follow employer safety rules. Students have also formed a connection to Midewin.  As we were leaving the native seed beds, the students suggested stopping to see "the oak tree."  The oak tree in question is one of the largest at Midewin:
L to R: Student Jade Pillow, Student Caprisha Treadwell, Faculty Leader Skye Nicholson, and Midewin Acting Public Services Team Leader Rick Short 

Midewin's Rick Short stated Midewin's team of scientists and forest specialists were thrilled to be able to work with the students this summer.  Short is hoping the partnership with North Lawndale College Prep will spread the word about Midewin in Chicago and that more people will take advantage of all that Midewin has to offer.  

For more info on Midewin, including directions, trail maps, a calendar of special events and more, visit: