Little School on the Prairie

Daydreaming during math, students at Sunset Ridge Elementary School can look out the windows of their classroom and see a prairie. Rabbits scamper, bluebirds trill, and the grass is tall enough for a kid to get lost in. But Sunset Ridge, in Middleton, Wisconsin, is no one-room schoolhouse from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. The students have pizza for lunch and do schoolwork on computers. So what's a tallgrass prairie doing here?

“We're trying to restore it,” says Nick Kjorlie, a student in Linda Hein's fourth-grade class. All the students at Sunset Ridge, from the littlest kindergartner on up, are helping to return an acre of land in front of their school to the way it looked 150 years ago, when settlers in covered wagons saw the prairie for the first time.

On this chilly spring day, Mrs. Hein's fourth graders wade into the grass in groups of three, flinging handfuls of seeds that students collected from yellow coneflowers that were growing on the prairie last fall.

Yellow-coneflower seeds need a winter in the ground before they sprout in the spring. “We won't be here when the flowers come up,” says Julia Carey. But she and her classmates know that, after they've moved on to middle school, butterflies will sip nectar from the sun-colored blossoms, bees will collect the pollen, and future classes at Sunset Ridge will enjoy the prairie in bloom.

An Ocean of Grass

At one time, the land all around Sunset Ridge was prairie. One-third of North America was covered with oceans of grass and flowers, where herds of buffalo roamed. In some places the grass was so tall that the first European settlers had to stand on their wagons to see over it. But soon the settlers and their steel plows made short work of the grasslands. In less than a century, the prairie plants were plowed under and the rich soil planted with corn and wheat. Only a tiny fraction of the original prairie remained.

Then, in the 1930s, scientists at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum decided to bring back a bit of prairie on a patch of old farmland. Re-creating a prairie ecosystem was almost impossible. No one alive had seen and studied the prairie before it was destroyed, and it was hard to find the seeds of the prairie plants. But the scientists persevered, and their idea caught on. Now there are hundreds of restored prairies across the Midwest, some thousands of acres big and others as small as a backyard.

Making It Wild

The seeds of the Sunset Ridge prairie were sown eight years ago, when the school was built. Then it took a lot of weeding, planting, and even burning to get the prairie looking as natural and beautiful as it does today. Why work so hard to bring a prairie back to life? The butterflies and bees that will feast on yellow coneflowers are a big part of the answer.

“We're bringing back habitat,” says Carley Henke. “When we put the school here, we took away habitat.” Now, the schoolyard is full of life. Gophers, snakes, birds, and crickets find food and shelter in the prairie's grass and flowering plants.

The prairie isn't all work. On a big pile of stones, the students have outdoor “rock concerts” with their music class or sit reading books on sunny days. “I like listening to the prairie whistling when the wind passes by,” says Lukas Zdanavicius. “It's beautiful in the summer, and you can see a cloud of butterflies coming up from it.”

The students at Sunset Ridge think the prairie makes their school unique. Other schools have tame green lawns where all the grass looks the same. But Nick and his classmates prefer the wild place they've created. “Prairie is a lot better than grass,” Nick says. “With prairie you get to see different animals and plants.” Fourth-grader Mack Gapinski agrees. “With grass, you couldn't do anything,” he says. “With the prairie, we do a lot of stuff here, and you kind of feel like it's yours.”

Vocabulary

  • acre: An area equal to 4,840 square yards.
  • arboretum: A place where plants are grown and studied.
  • ecosystem: The plants, animals, and nonliving things that make up an environment and have an effect on each other.
  • habitat: The place where an animal or plant naturally lives and grows.
  • persevered: To continue to try to do something despite obstacles or difficulties.
  • prairie: A wide area of flat or rolling land with tall grass and few trees.
  • restore: To bring back to an original condition.
  • sown: Scattered or planted to produce a crop.

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Activity

  1. What kinds of seeds did the students plant on the prairie?
  2. What is a need of these seeds?
  3. How can you tell that it rains on the prairie?