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Hooker Oak Outdoor Classroom

"Maslin Meadow" named after Dr. Paul Maslin
Department of Biological Sciences, CSU, Chico

   Between the first and second wing of Hooker Oak Elementary School lies a 180 ft by 40 ft courtyard which was formerly unusable for much of the school year. Roof drains dump thousands of gallons of water into this yard during winter storms. The original design included a drain to the street but this was subsequently damaged and replaced by a drain to a percolation pit.

 Consequently, the yard drained slowly, retaining surface water for several days after each storm. Because it had a uniformly flat surface, the whole yard became covered with one to three inches of water. The soil remained saturated for most of the rainy season and any foot traffic turned the yard into a sea of mud.

Encouraged by a supportive principal, a group of parents and teachers decided to turn the courtyard's limitations into assets by converting it to a special outdoor classroom for nature study.

First, the surface was re-graded so that water would drain by way of a limited part of the yard, freeing up the remaining area for teaching purposes. A permanent pond was included, with a float valve to retain water in summer and a temporary pond which serves as a wetland and supplemental percolation area. Bentonite clay was mixed thoroughly into water in each pond and allowed to percolate into the substrate to provide a partial seal.  

 In winter-dry paths were put in of crushed rock with bridges over drainages to improve the area's function as a fire-escape corridor and permit areas of interest to be visited without tracking mud into classrooms. With this basic physical structure in place, elements were added to diversify the environment.

 1.    A compost heap was established to illustrate decomposition and nutrient cycling, deal with excess leaves and weeds and provide compost to help establish plants.
2.    Large rocks, logs, and driftwood were added for seats and cover.
3.    A variety of smaller rocks were collected and used to line the trails, taking care to group them by rock type.
4.    Drain rock was added to the drainage channels, making them more attractive, and providing cover for invertebrates, lizards, etc.
5.    Trees and shrubs that demonstrate unique adaptations or are attractive to birds and butterflies were planted. While native plants were given preference, some non-natives with interesting adaptations or fruits attractive to wildlife were included.
6.    Bird feeders, nesting boxes, and a bird bath were set up in strategic spots for observation from windows.
7.    Seeds of local wildflowers were collected or purchased. Some were planted in prepared beds, others were scattered randomly in the courtyard.
8.    Collections of water and organisms were made at local permanent and temporary ponds and introduced into the appropriate nature area pond to establish natural communities.
    Students always take an interest in the project. They generate nature-study money by saving recyclable materials from home and enthusiastically assume duties of keeping bird feeders supplied and protecting the area from their careless peers.

As the project developed, additional school personnel, parents and community members became involved. The janitor brought a plant from home and planted it. The cook donated some plants. University personnel donated native plants and seeds. Friends of parents collected rocks, driftwood, and wildflower seeds.

This wonderful learning environment has many natural residents now, reproducing populations of toads and treefrogs and is attracting numerous species of birds including an egret which comes to fish the pond. It has become progressively better over the years as plantings matured and opportunities for new acquisitions arose.

   The project was accomplished entirely with volunteer labor and donated material. Chico Unified School District cooperated by transferring maintenance responsibility for the courtyard to Hooker Oak School. The minute cost to the district for water to keep the permanent pond filled is more than offset by reduced maintenance costs.

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