Laughter, squeals and questions echo through 10 acres of hardwood trees and winding nature trails as kids explore the grounds at McDavid-Jones Elementary School (MJES) in Citronelle.
The property, a certified TREASURE Forest, is a hotbed of learning for Mobile County pre-K through fifth-grade students, said teacher Joy Herring.
“I love seeing kids out in nature. More importantly, they love it,” said Herring, the science lab coordinator at MJES.
Over 20 years, Herring and scores of parent and community volunteers turned a former gully bordering school property into a TREASURE Forest with 11 learning stations, an amphitheater, arboretum, pavilion, walking trail, raised garden beds and wildflower field.
MJES is one of two Alabama schools to earn a stamp of approval from the program, which stands for Timber, Recreation, Environment, Aesthetics, Sustainable, Usable, REsources.
“Even though these kids live in a rural area, they don’t know much about the outdoors,” Herring said. “We do anything that will get them learning outside.”
Herring’s hard work supplementing in-class lessons with TREASURE Forest training is paying off for the 1,000 students at MJES.
Walking through the halls of MJES, one teacher thanked Herring for providing dirt for her classroom terrarium — a point one student quickly corrected.
“It’s not dirt; it’s soil!” he said.
An animal print identification course zeroes in on the differences in native wildlife. Students learn to identify trees, too, observing hickory, loblolly, longleaf, Southern magnolia, laurel oak, yaupon holly and more.
The TREASURE Forest, also an Alabama Outdoor Classroom, is mostly hardwoods, with just an acre of longleaf pine, the Alabama state tree. Retired MJES educator Mandy Meeks led the charge to establish the longleaf plantation in the early ‘90s, a task Herring was glad to pick up when she joined the staff in 1999.
“When you retire from a school, not everyone you leave behind has the same passion,” Meeks said. “But Joy had that passion, and the school leadership supports her.”
Herring’s zeal for TREASURE Forest started on her family land just across the Mississippi line.
“One of the reasons Robert (her husband) and I decided to certify our TREASURE Forest and hold Classroom in the Forest was so our kids could come to our homeplace, bring their friends and be proud of it,” Herring said. “When I found out McDavid-Jones had 10 acres (the required minimum acreage) at the school, I said, ‘Oh yes, we have to do it.’”
MJES was recertified as a TREASURE Forest this year, concentrating on enhancing wildlife habitat and educating future stewards of the land.
In addition to exploring the MJES TREASURE Forest, pre-K through fifth-grade students annually attend Classroom in the Forest at Pratt Turner Conservation Center. They discover wildlife and forestry facts and learn the importance of private landownership.
Alabama TREASURE Forest Association (ATFA) Executive Director William Green applauded Herring for her work improving students’ knowledge of the outdoors. The ATFA is an affiliate of the Alabama Farmers Federation.
“Alabama is blessed with bountiful natural resources like those on display at McDavid-Jones Elementary School,” Green said. “From the walking trail to the pine plantation, students have ample opportunities to learn about their surroundings. We’re grateful for landowners like Mrs. Joy who see the value in natural resource education.”
Herring said her goals for the TREASURE Forest are simple — eradicate cogongrass in the wildflower field, extend the nature trail through the longleaf pine plantation, erect owl boxes and complete a controlled burn using Alabama Forestry Commission resources.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to grow good stewards,” she said. “They’re the future of the world.”
Visit TREASUREForest.org to learn more.