Duluth East students share space with wildlife

When Duluth school officials first planned to expand the former Ordean Middle School into the current East High School, they got in hot water for threatening an eagle's nest in a pine forest near the school.

Science class in the woods
Duluth East High School forestry, fish and wildlife teacher Jenny Madole explains to her forestry class students how to use a tree stick scale to measure the diameter of a tree. (Bob King /

When Duluth school officials first planned to expand the former Ordean Middle School into the current East High School, they got in hot water for threatening an eagle's nest in a pine forest near the school.

Neighbors complained that too many trees would be cut to handle the big school, athletic fields and parking lots, threatening the wild nature of the neighborhood -- if not the eagle family itself.

Indeed, about 100 trees were cut down to accommodate the new stadium.

But plans were changed and accommodations made that not only saved the eagle's nest but allowed school officials to seek Minnesota Department of Natural Resources certification for the remaining woods as an official state school forest.

Efforts to preserve and add habitat on the grounds already have earned "Certified Wildlife Habitat" designation by the National Wildlife Federation, a seal of approval that the effort will help the chickadees, woodpeckers, deer, bear, pine marten, eagles and many other species seen on the property.


"I've always used the outdoors as a classroom in some way," said Jennifer Madole, East science teacher. "But this is a more coordinated effort to make this a better place for wildlife and birds to make it sustainable. It's also going to make it a better place to learn."

Teachers, administrators, students, neighbors, conservation groups and others have joined forces to create habitat, plant native trees like birch and tamarack, rip out invasive species like buckthorn and plan a school grounds that will attract and hold wildlife. That includes native grasses and plants to attract birds, bees and butterflies and that require no pesticides or fertilizers and don't need to be mowed.

It's all part of the school district's larger sustainable schools initiative. But the East effort is also aimed at softening the footprint from the big increase in concrete and asphalt on the old Ordean school grounds. An orchard is planned to ring the baseball field. Vegetable gardens will sprout along 40th Avenue East. There are plans for student-built birdhouses and bat houses. A rain garden will be developed to help slow the runoff from paved-over areas into a nearby stream.

Science, agriculture and even shop classes are involved. There's even a movement for a contest to rename the seasonal stream that runs through the school forest. (Nobody likes the current "Fortieth Avenue East Creek" name.) Some of the projects will take money, which the school district is short of, and the collaboration is seeking grants from local organizations and businesses.

"We've got the (National Wildlife Federation) certification. But we still have a lot of work to do. We're just getting started," said Shawn Roed, East activities director.

Maybe most importantly, students already are heading outdoors to take it all in.

"I think it will help. We're making more room, more shelter for the animals and birds," said Nicole Heskin, an East senior who last spring helped pull buckthorn out of the forest. "And removing the invasives is going to help the native species do better."

Heskin is helping Madole this semester with 40 students in the school's popular forestry, fish and wildlife class. She's active in FFA, or Future Farmers of America, and hopes to translate her love of the outdoors and wildlife into a career in zoology.


East junior Kyle Lindblad was walking the school forest near Superior Street last week, measuring different tree species for the forestry, fish and wildlife class, when he found a 21-inch diameter tamarack tree.

"I'd never seen one that big before, only little ones in the swamps and stuff," he said. "This is pretty cool. It was huge."

Madole hopes a wilder, more-natural school grounds might help foster students' learning in other subjects like music, literature and even math.

"I think getting kids outside will help push them in a lot of areas not necessarily to do with ecology," she said.

David Mizejewski, National Wildlife Federation naturalist, said small habitat efforts can make a bigger difference than it may appear at first blush.

"It's easy to feel that there is no hope for wildlife in our modern world of smog, traffic and asphalt. But there is hope. Each of us can make our own piece of the Earth a healthy, green space that helps restore the ecological balance," Mizejewski said in announcing the federation's certification of the East campus. "Encouraging your neighbors to join with you can lead to a neighborhood or community habitat that provides wildlife with greater incentive to call your piece of the Earth home."

East already is doing that, and habitat efforts by Madole and others have helped smooth ruffled feathers of neighbors who weren't crazy about the prospects of a bigger school.

"We're neighbors now. I was one of those who thought it's too small a space for a high school," said Brian Ronstrom, whose Superior Street home abuts the school forest near the stadium. "But it's a done deal and we have to get along. Actually, it's working better than I anticipated. ... They seem to be really interested in making this as friendly as possible, for the neighbors and the animals."


Madole said the nesting eagles on the site, which might have come close to scuttling the new high school altogether, could now become teachers in their own right.

"I'd love to get a camera up in that nest so we could have the whole school observe what's going on up there," she said. "We'd need to get some grants to make something like that happen. But it would really get the students involved."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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