CONCORD -- It was a day they had awaited all year. On May 19, 10 students from Concord School participated in the Vermont Envirothon, a state-wide competition that tests high school students in forestry, wildlife, soils, aquatics and current issues. Four of those students -- sophomores Taylor Call, Ashley Darrell, Evan Hemond and Logan Quimby -- began preparing last fall in their Natural Resources class, taught by high school science teacher Liz Wyman.
Wyman, who was new to the school this year, introduced the Envirothon program to Concord because she had been on New Hampshire's state champion team when she was in high school. "Envirothon was the most hands-on educational experience I ever had, and the things I learned stuck with me and had more meaning and relevance than everything I studied in college and graduate school combined," said Wyman. "With Concord students being so outdoorsy, I wanted to give them this opportunity to learn about the natural resource fields and study with real professionals, so I created this class in order to prepare them for the Envirothon," she said.
However, with Concord's budget frozen since October and a petition to close the school introduced this spring, it was uncertain whether Wyman's students would be able to register and participate in the Envirothon training in April and the competition in May. They spent all fall and winter learning to identify trees and mammals and studying forestry and wildlife management. Then in March Wyman found out they would not have the funding to travel to the training and competition.
"It was a setback, but our students had been working so hard, I knew there had to be a way to make this happen," Wyman said. Concord School Principal Kasey Potter suggested that the CHS Boosters Club and Alumni Foundation might consider her request, so Wyman applied and got on the meeting agenda. "Both organizations were so supportive. They gave us enough funding to register and reserve a bus for the training and competition, which allowed me to put together a second team and involve even more students in the program," she said.
With funding secured, Wyman recruited some of her top science students to join the program, adding sophomore Felicia Colbeth to the A-team made up of students from the Natural Resources class. Junior Cecilia Chamul and freshmen Leland Murtiff, Zac Noyes, Virginia Thompson and Abby Young formed a second B-team just days before the training in April. The Vermont Envirothon allows each school to enter up to two teams of five students each.
"I don't think any of them really knew what they were getting into," said Wyman, "but all of the B-team students enthusiastically volunteered and studied like mad in the weeks before the competition, trying to catch up to teams who had been preparing all year."
Wyman reserved a fur-bearer kit from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife office in St. Johnsbury and quizzed students on mammal skins and skulls. She invited retired soil scientist Joe Homer to teach students about soil texture and horizons, and watershed coordinator Ben Copans from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation introduced students to watershed delineation and benthic macroinvertebrates. "They really liked the bugs and had fun digging in the dirt," said Wyman.
Central to the Envirothon competition is the current issue project, in which students create and implement a management plan to solve a real-world conservation issue. For this year's project, students were in charge of identifying an aspect of their town's community forest to study and map, identifying the top threats to the forest, developing a plan to mitigate those threats, and conducting outreach to promote their plan to the community. Concord's teams considered a number of sites around town, but both teams chose to focus on different sections of the one-acre forest parcel behind their school.
Wyman explained, "The students had a real interest in protecting our school's forest because they had spent so much time out there studying trees. They identified the top threat to be a lack of citizen interest in this piece of land, and they wanted to get the school re-engaged with the forest and turn it into an outdoor classroom that could be used by the elementary and middle grades." The students decided to build a guided nature trail to teach their fellow classmates and community members about the forest ecosystem.
By the time their project was underway, the town had voted to close Concord High School effective July 1 and tuition students out to other schools next year. "At first the students asked, are we still going to follow through with this plan?" Wyman said. "But then they realized that this was their opportunity to leave a legacy at the Concord School and share what they had learned with their community. The project took on a new meaning."
Students spent the coming weeks in the woods measuring, identifying, and creating an inventory of the 1,340 trees in their forest. They used the NRCS Web Soil Survey to determine the exact size of the parcel and identify soil types and drainage patterns. Then they compiled their data and crunched the numbers to analyze patterns of ecological succession -- the change in the composition of tree species in their forest over time. They learned that the land was an abandoned pasture that had been colonized by sun-loving white pines. Beneath the canopy of now-mature pines, and understory of shade-tolerant hardwood trees is emerging, with hundreds of balsam fir seedlings on the forest floor. Students found signs of a variety of wildlife species, including white-tailed deer, porcupines, partridge, chipmunks and snowshoe hare.
At the state competition on May 19, students spent the day outside at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee taking field tests in forestry, wildlife, soils and aquatics. In the middle of it all, they had to get up in front of a panel of four natural resource professionals and spend 15 minutes presenting their project proposal and answering questions. The Friday before the competition they had stayed hours after school preparing graphs, charts, maps, and note cards and rehearsing their presentations for Wyman and Potter. On competition day, the students were ready to deliver.
"They were all a little nervous going in, but they did a great job," said Wyman. "The judges were really impressed by the data they had collected and compiled on the ecology of their forest."
At the end of the day, students anxiously awaited as test scores were posted one by one on a scoreboard. Concord's two teams were the rookies of the competition alongside 15 experienced teams from much larger schools, including Bellows Falls, South Burlington, Rutland, People's Academy, Missisquoi, Websterville and Stafford Tech.
"I told the students going into this that Year 1 would be a learning experience. Just like in sports, you wouldn't expect a team of kids who'd never played before to win states. But you build a program and train students over several years so that by their senior year, they can go in and dominate the competition," explained Wyman. "I knew there were a lot of topics we didn't have time to cover, especially for the B-team, but I told them to just do the best with what they learned in the time they had."
When the scores were revealed, Concord students breathed a sigh of relief. "They were afraid they would be last!" said Wyman. Not so. Concord's A-team scored second in the state in Forestry, beating out teams like Stafford Tech that have an established forestry program.
"That was the biggest surprise of the day," said Wyman. "I visited all of the stations, and Forestry was by far the most challenging. A lot of teams weren't able to finish that test in time, but our A-team thought it was a piece of cake. They really knew their trees."
In addition, Concord's A-team scored sixth in the current issue presentation, ninth in wildlife, and eighth overall in the state. Concord's B-team came in 13th overall in a field of 17 teams, scoring respectably despite only weeks of preparation.
"For the B-team to even be competitive in the very short time they had is testament to those students' work ethic and dedication," said Wyman. "Unlike the A-team, they did not learn any of this stuff in class. Instead, they were working with me during their study hall time and breaks in between class, and studying late at night after finishing their other homework. And they had a strong showing in a field of experienced teams."
The highlight of the day came during the awards ceremony. Concord didn't expect to be on the podium to represent Vermont at nationals in their first year. However, they also didn't expect the recognition they got from the program's organizers.
"Gary Salmon, who coordinated the Forestry part of the competition for the past 20 years, was accepting an award for his long-time service. During his acceptance speech, he got tears in his eyes as he turned to our Concord teams and said how impressed he was that we had entered the competition and persevered in the midst of our school closing. He and the other judges were all really happy to have Concord be a part of this year's competition," said Wyman. "Then when we realized that the A-team had placed second in forestry, we were so proud. They deserved it!"
The Natural Resources class has spent the weeks since the competition building their Nature Trail, preparing a guided brochure, and hanging wooden signs carved by sophomore Evan Hemond. On June 5, they organized 15-minute tours of the trail during Field Day for all of the students in the kindergarten through eighth grade, introducing the younger grades and their teachers to the history and ecology of the forest.
"The K-8 teachers were really impressed by the high school students' knowledge of the forest," said Wyman. "I could sense that some of them were afraid of the woods, worried about getting ticks and poison ivy, or just not even sure what was back there," she continued. "There is no poison ivy back there, and none of us has seen a tick in the month we've been working in the woods. I think that experiencing the natural trail put them at ease and opened them to all of the educational opportunities it provides."
"Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we are proud to have represented Concord at the state competition and to show everyone how much talent and determination come from our small school," said Wyman. "And the students are proud of the legacy that their nature trail will leave for the school and the community."
The Concord Nature Trail is open to the public and will soon have an informational kiosk containing trail guides. In addition, students are creating an online guide to the trail that will be available at the school's web site. For more information, visit http://www.edline.net/pages/Concord_School.