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Momentum builds for school native plant garden


Advocates for a proposed native plant garden on the La Conner Schools campus have given district officials plenty of food for thought.

Several people spoke passionately on behalf of the proposal during a lengthy public comments segment at the April 24 school board meeting.

It was the third time the garden project – promoted by the Swinomish Department of Environmental Protection – has been addressed.

Board members, in accordance with district policy, did not respond to the comments.

“This isn’t a dialogue or question-and-answer session,” board president Susie Gardner Deyo explained beforehand. “It’s an opportunity for the board to hear from the public.”

Deyo and other board members have previously expressed support for the campus garden while seeking additional project details before taking formal action.

A key detail has been location.

The original plan presented by Jen Willup and Morgan Brown called for the garden to be located behind the Bruce Performing Arts Center. At a subsequent meeting, board member Loran James suggested the garden be sited just north of Whittaker Field.

“This proposal,” James said at the time, “is amazing and something all our students will benefit from. We just have to figure out the location. I’m in favor of it.”

Todd Mitchell, director of the Swinomish Department of Environmental Protection and son of late former La Conner Elementary School Principal Ray Mitchell, asked to “have this facility ready for next year.”

Mitchell said it would be a logical extension of the Between Two Worlds science and environmental curriculum at the schools.

“It would offer more experiences for students,” said Mitchell, “by creating this botanical garden.”

Teacher Alyse Sehlin agreed.

“It would be a phenomenal opportunity,” she said. “It’s a great possibility. If we allow people to walk their dogs on school fields, we should allow development of this space – an educational space to connect with the land.”

Willup and Brown earlier told board members that project funding is available through Swinomish, with water and electricity being the school district’s cost share once approved.

The garden would produce plants native to the Pacific Northwest that have proved over generations to be nutritionally and medicinally beneficial, Willup, Brown and other project supporters have said. Tending the garden allows students to extend classroom lessons with practical hands-on learning activities.

“The native plant garden,” said La Conner alum Catey Ritchie, a project manager with the Skagit River System Cooperative, “is an opportunity for kids to get their hands in the dirt.”

Ritchie recalled that as a student she was able to experience the nearby Breazeale Interpretive Center, which offers a “hands, ears and eyes-on” way to learn about the ecology and wildlife of Padilla Bay and local area.

Swinomish Tribal Senator Alana Quintasket, like Ritchie a La Conner alum, said the garden is envisioned as a place to “foster and grow native plants.” She and fellow Swinomish senator Eric Day, another former La Conner student, said they were speaking on behalf of the present generation of students here.

“I spent a lot of time learning in these halls,” said Day, who appreciated learning tactile skills such as automotive care and woodworking.

“It’s important to learn from books,” Day insisted, “but it’s also important to get your hands involved.”

Mitchell, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Washington State University and part of the team that launched the Between Two Worlds program, said garden space could also be devoted to a barbecue area where students would learn time-honored ways of preparing fish.

Sehlin said the garden is a project whose time has come.

“I think it’s time,” she stressed. “We should have checked the boxes. We should have moved forward. I hate to think we could lose this opportunity because we drug our feet.”


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