Students at Otsego Schools used to look out their classroom windows and see a bean field. Now they see a new immersive outdoor classroom that they and their teachers had a hand in designing. The sixteen acres now include wet forest, vernal wetlands, and wet and dry meadows with Tontogany Creek running through it. The space is a permanent extension of the classrooms.
The heirs of the Fox and Shank families first thought to sell their land, which is across the street from the schools, for commercial development. But a conversation with the Black Swamp Conservancy led to a unique educational opportunity. Otsego’s grade school and high school teachers worked with a land design team to create beautiful, useful, green spaces that students can enjoy and learn from. Students added their wish list (berries! more water features!) and then helped to build a path and plant some of the trees on the site. After more than a year of broad collaboration, the restoration was completed, and the Black Swamp Conservancy, Otsego Schools and our partners at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources H2Ohio program held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 2, 2023.
That same week, earth science teachers began using the stream for water quality testing, an effort that will continue throughout the year. Nearby, a High School ecology class roamed the prairie identifying and collecting insects. Art students will be able to access a variety of changing views and natural objects right outside the classroom door. The Future Farmers Association will cultivate some acres and learn the valuable intersections of agriculture and natural habitats coexisting to provide healthier soil and water.
Otsego Schools’ Superintendent Kevin O’Shea emphasized that benefits extend far beyond the school day. “This living laboratory will foster a deep appreciation for the natural world, enabling our students to develop a strong sense of environmental stewardship.”
For teachers and students alike, this natural area will be a refuge – a serene and inspiring place to relax and recharge. The area is also open to the public during non-school hours. Spending time in nature is known to relieve anxiety and depression for people of all ages.
Superintendent O’Shea said the partnerships that brought the project together will continue to grow. “We envision partnerships with researchers, conservationists, and community leaders, leading to inspiring projects and initiatives that benefit both the wetland and the broader ecosystem.” A partnership with Bowling Green State University to share data and research is already in the works.
The Fox-Shank/Otsego collaboration is the first project of its kind for the Conservancy. “This was a unique initiative for us to protect and conserve property while also directly linking that land to formal education,” said Conservancy Executive Director Rob Krain. “The enthusiastic partnership with Otsego Schools means that while we improve water quality and build habitat, we will be building a new generation of stewards of our environment. We hope to replicate this project with other schools in northwest Ohio.”