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Area Schools On Board With Proposed Outdoor Learning Lab In Niles

Friday, October 25, 2019
Journal and Topics Online
by Tom Robb

Area Schools On Board With Proposed Outdoor Learning Lab In Niles

By Tom Robb | on October 25, 2019

A Cook County Forest Preserve map of the North Branch Trail (in red) as it runs near the intersection of Okaton Street and Caldwell Avenue. A section off Oakton near Nordica Avenue is proposed by Mayor Andrew Przybylo to be converted to an outdoor classroom.


While discussing proposals for a new police department garage, Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo briefly mentioned plans to develop a field along Oakton Street just west of Caldwell Avenue into an outdoor learning lab, which would include a rain garden.

The field is part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s North Branch Trail, which runs along the North Branch of the Chicago River in that area parallel to Caldwell Avenue. That area of the North Branch Trail also backs up to the Niles Park District’s Tam O’Shanter Golf Course.

Beginning in August, Przybylo, Community Engagement Director Katie Schneider and former Niles Economic Development Coordinator Ross Klicker held a series of meetings with top officials from school districts, including Maine Township High School Dist. 207, Niles Township High School Dist. 219, Niles School Dist. 71 (Culver School), East Maine School Dist. 63 and Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Village officials say they are working to schedule a meeting with Oakton Community College.

The proposal would include covered structures both with picnic tables and set as classrooms, along with other amenities, Schneider said. During the Tuesday, Oct. 22 Niles Village Board meeting, Przybylo said it could also include a rain garden.

After the recent meetings, superintendents from districts 207, 219, 71 and 63 along with the president of Northeastern Illinois University sent Przybylo letters of support for the proposed improvements.

Schneider said those meetings were held in part to garner information from those educational institutions on what they would like to see in an outdoor learning lab. She said village officials have not yet approached Cook County Forest Preserve District officials or Cook County commissioners about the proposal, which is still being developed, although they are expected to soon.

Letters of support for the proposal from area school districts discuss a parking lot and school bus turn around as part of the tentative proposal.

“We are especially excited by the plan to also use the property for an outdoor teaching lab. Students would be able to visit the location to study native plants and animal species, and test the water quality along the river,” Dist. 71 Supt. John Kosirog said in his August letter to Przybylo. “Inclusions of outdoor classrooms, parking, walkways, and bridges make it an ideal learning environment for our students.” Culver School is located on Oakton, across Nordica Avenue just a few yards from the site.

“When the proposed idea was shared with several of our teachers, they were excited about the possibilities, especially since the area will include natural water filtration process and native plants. In fact, one teacher already has specific ideas on how the areas could be utilized including coupling it with the existing IMSA (Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy)/NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) water challenge.” Dist. 207 Supt. Ken Wallace said. “As with any field trip or out of school learning opportunity, student safety is a major concern. Therefore, we appreciate that the proposal includes a parking lot that allows school bus access and turn around for easy and safe transportation for all ages.”

“We enthusiastically support the village’s plans for the 6701 Oakton site and look forward to hearing about your progress,” East Maine School Dist. 63 Supt. Scott Clay said in his August letter. “Clearly, such an enhancement — which would include walking trails, bridges, outdoor classrooms, and school bus access — would be a tremendous asset to D63. Our science curriculum, in particular, includes a wide range of subjects that would benefit from the opportunity to give our students hands-on learning experiences in a natural setting.”

Clay continued, “In truth, this amenity would benefit the entire community — including the families we serve at our schools. Local residents could enjoy this natural area close to home, take advantage of the bike trail and fitness stations, and easily connect to the North Branch Trail.”

“The village’s plan to create a learning lab offers great potential for real-life learning opportunities for our students, including topics such as the water filtration process, environmental sustainability technology and rain gardens,” Dist. 219 Supt. Steven Isoye said in his Oct. 7 letter to Przybylo. “Please let the Forest Preserves of Cook County know that out high school district is fully supportive of this proposal.”

“The idea of an outdoor teaching lab is one that we want to help you advance because it is very much consistent with our university’s creative approach to hands-on learning,” Northeastern Illinois University President Gloria Gibson said in an Oct. 10 letter to Przybylo. “These proposed enhancements would not only benefit the surrounding community but — from what I’ve learned from our faculty who you have engaged in the design of the proposal — Northeastern as well.”

The seed of the idea to improve the field along Oakton Street was first proposed by the JohnsByrne company, whose facility is on the corner of Oakton and Caldwell, with the trail wrapping around behind JohnsByrne.

In 2017, JohnsByrne was in need of more employee parking near their plant. JohnsByrne officials, working with Niles officials, made a proposal to Cook County Forest Preserve officials to allow them to use forest preserve field on Oakton in exchange for the installation of fitness equipment in the field. That proposal was rejected by forest preserve officials.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13th), who also serves as a forest preserve commissioner and in whose district the property is located, said JohnsByrne’s proposal was not consistent with the mission of the forest preserve district, which is why it did not move forward, but said education is strongly within the forest preserve’s mission. Suffredin said although he is not familiar with the proposal, he is eager to hear more about it.

Suffredin gave a brief history of how the parcel along Oakton Street became forest preserve land and why it has no trees.

In 1963, a natural gas company with a pipeline running under the parcel donated the property to lessen their property tax burden, Suffredin said. The underground pipeline, which still exists, is the reason no trees have been planted since. The roots of native plantings in rain gardens do not run as deep as tree roots.




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