Wetland, boardwalk complete South Portland school's Learning Garden

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SOUTH PORTLAND — With the completion of a new Rain Garden and boardwalk, a vision of outdoor environmental education at Skillin Elementary School has been realized.

“This marks the completion of our Learning Garden,” said first-grade teacher Anne Cyr, who has headed the development of the three outdoor-learning areas behind the school. “It was a five-year plan that only took six years. That’s not too bad.”

Cyr spoke Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by all students and opened a series of outdoor activities for Ecology Day at the school.

The Rain Garden is the final project in the school’s Learning Garden, which also includes the Bird and Butterfly Garden and Outdoor Classroom and Nature Trail. Cyr said students use the Learning Garden all year, whether by releasing monarch butterflies and collecting leaves or collecting soil and water samples to analyze inside.

“This lets students see it all rather than just reading about it,” Cyr said.

The Rain Garden features 160 feet of boardwalk with three observation decks resting atop a wetland-like environment. Students and volunteers planted more than 100 plants, including tamarack larch, buttonbush, sweetgale and swamp azalea.

Lynne Richard, environmental education coordinator for Portland Water District,  travels the region teaching children and adults about clean water and wetlands and has nothing but praise for Cyr and the Skillin project.

“Anne is great about celebrating wetlands and water,” said Richard, who attended the opening ceremony. “South Portland does a great job with environmental education. They’re a model for other schools, in my mind.”

Richard said the Rain Garden utilizes what in most instances would have remained a storm-water drain area, collecting runoff from the playground and parking lot behind the school.

“This turns a waster area into something useful and important,” Richard said. “You want to capture drain water, take advantage of natural processes, let nature clean it and get it back into the water cycle.”

The Rain Garden was designed about 2 1/2 years ago by Barry Hosmer, a landscape architect who donated his time. Hosmer said planting was so successful that some other wetland plant species are coming into the area on their own.

The boardwalk was built by LearningWorks students, led by teacher Dave Connor. The students, ages 16-24, were part of LearningWorks’ Youth Build Alternatives program, which allows students to earn their GED while getting trade experience.

Funds for the Learning Garden came from many sources, Cyr said, including Portland Trails, South Portland Lions Club, Skillin’s Parent-Teacher Association, Saco & Biddeford Savings and fundraisers.

The materials used to build the Rain Garden’s boardwalk were donated by Hillside Lumber, she said. Cyr also said her husband, carpenter Conrad Cyr, donated many hours to the project.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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Lynne Richard, left, and Amanda Roy, both from the Portland Water District, talk on the new boardwalk that opened June 1 at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland.

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