This week’s take-home lesson for some Tacoma students was pretty simple: Planting trees is back-breaking work, but a day in the woods beats an ordinary school day, hands down.
James Browning, 17, summed up his stint at hard labor this way: “I feel like Jean Valjean, from ‘Les Miserables.’”
His reference to the fictional ex-con from Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel (and more recent Academy Award-winning film) was a bit of hyperbole.
In the end, he and his three classmates from Tacoma Public Schools’ Re-Engagement Center agreed that digging holes and planting seedlings at the school district’s Lincoln Tree Farm was a different way to learn about science, the environment and potential job opportunities in the field of forestry.
“It’s really hard work -- especially with all the rocks,” said 18-year-old Stephanie Lam, as she threw all 85 pounds of herself into digging holes to cradle her tiny trees. “But it would be an interesting job, because you’d be working outdoors.”
Earlier, she had learned that the rocky soil was a legacy of deposits left by Ice Age glaciers that migrated south from British Columbia. Over lunch, students heard about the spot on the tree farm known as Leschi’s Lookout, named for the legendary leader of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which once wintered in the area.
Experiential learning was exactly what teacher Tony Lund had in mind when he scheduled the Tuesday field trip to the 331-acre property near Spanaway. He teaches science and math at the downtown Re-Engagement Center. The center helps students who drop out of high school, or who fail to achieve enough credits to graduate, earn their diplomas.
“We have a diverse population of kids,” Lund said. “Many of them are taking care of siblings or family members. Getting out of the classroom and into the field is something they might never do.”
Lund was persuaded to give the tree farm a try after hearing John Page, the school district’s director of career and technical education, extol its virtues.
“We are trying to give kids from the urban hub a contextual experience in the natural environment,” Page said. “We want them to get out there and see something they might not have participated in.”
Page is passionate about reviving interest among Tacoma teachers in using the tree farm, which has a long history as part of the Tacoma School District.
The farm has its roots in the forestry conservation movement of the 1930s, when Lincoln High School students planted seedlings along Highway 410 near what is now the entrance to Crystal Mountain Ski Resort.
In 1941, the Tacoma School District purchased land owned by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company near the Lake Kapowsin turnoff from Highway 7, the Mountain Highway. And in 1943, the district swapped that land for the tract that’s the current site of the Lincoln Tree Farm, closer to the highway.
Over the years, students built trails and fences. A classroom building on the property opened in the 1960s. In the same decade, a half-dozen Douglas fir Christmas trees from the farm were shipped to Vietnam to brighten the holidays for soldiers at war.
The farm, a managed forest, has yielded both cash from harvested timber and credits for students enrolled in forestry and outdoor education classes. A recent timber sale -- cut from five acres where trees showed signs of root rot -- netted an estimated $70,000 for the district’s general fund, according to Paula Hopkins, who manages the farm with her husband, Dick, under contract with the school district.
At one time, students from several Tacoma high schools participated in classes or summer programs at the tree farm. The school-year curriculum included instruction in forestry, logging and equipment maintenance.
As new academic demands on high schools emerged in the 1990s, full-time programs for students at the farm gradually faded out, Page said.
The farm currently hosts a summer program for middle schoolers, taught by teens. And Page is working on developing paid summer internships for students who want to work and earn high school credits while they learn about forest management.
Nineteen-year-old Bryan Czapla, one of Lund’s students, was eager to hear more about that possibility.
He left school in another state and started working at age 15, after his mother died and he needed to help his family. He’s done everything from installing floors to glazing hams, and now lives in Tacoma with his brothers.
He’s focused on finishing high school.
“I realized life is a lot better with an education,” he said. “I plan to go to college. There’s a college savings account waiting for me.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635