When Grade 12 student Alex Boekestyn trains for cross-country along the South Creek Trail, next to Smithville Christian High School, he is literally running on top of the final product of his Grade 9 Geography project.
Starting at the Wade Street walking bridge, the South Creek trail meanders along the Twenty Mile Creek for almost a kilometer, used often by students and community residents for walking, jogging, and cycling. And it wouldn’t be there if the Grade 9 students of Smithville Christian High School hadn’t asked the question: “Why is there no sidewalk between our school and the Leisureplex down the road?”
This question led to a trail of its own—one that has transformed a Grade 9 project into a four-year adventure for Alex and his classmates.
Students were frustrated at having to walk along the side of the road in front of the school while cars traveled at excessive speeds, making their travel dangerous. Their Geography teacher, Gina Vandendool, used the driving question to create a project for her class. The group decided to take action, and went out to the street with a radar detector, collecting the necessary data to prove to their local township that the road was not safe for students to walk along.
The initial response from the township was frustrating; it was not their road, and therefore, not their responsibility. However, the township had been facing a similar question of their own—is Smithville a walkable community? They had subsequently hired a surveying company from Kitchener-Waterloo to help, but they also decided to work together with students to find the answers they both sought.
Smithville students, along with the new company, developed a survey which they administered to over eight hundred students of the four elementary and two high schools in the Smithville area. The survey included fifteen questions about the modes of transportation used, as well as their travel paths and feelings about safety. This survey was used to define what areas needed improvement in their community. Their shared goal was to make Smithville a walkable community.
Vandendool quickly realized an opportunity that reached far beyond the initial data collection exercise, and chose to jump at the chance to strengthen a working relationship between her students and the township in which they lived.
“As teachers, we often tend to focus our sights on the project itself, and how we can get to the final product by the end of the semester so that we can give the students their grade and move them along to their next level. But in doing so, we miss out on providing them a learning opportunity that becomes a story to pass on for the next class and the class after that to build upon. That’s how relationships are built in the school and in our community.”
[caption id=”attachment_12060” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Dale VandenDool, Alex Boekestyn, Ethan Vanderlee; a few of the trail designers with their proposal back in 2012[/caption]
The class began investigating, along with the township, on how to create linkages (“a term the township likes to use often,” says Vandendool) between the communities where people live and where they want to get their services. A sidewalk was not an option under the jurisdiction of the township, so they proposed a trail location along the Twenty Mile Creek, which is located at the end of Wade Road, right in front of their school.
To their surprise, the township agreed—they assigned the class to create a design for the proposed trail. And this past summer, the trail was completed.
“It was in 2012 that we got that assignment,” said teacher Gina Vandendool. “Those kids are now the graduates of this year, 2016.”
Grade 12 student Alex Boekestyn was part of that class. “It was really exciting,” he describes, “especially now that it’s been built. It wasn’t just a fake project—this was real life. We were actually working with people in the township to make this happen, and we were given a budget and everything. We had to be sensitive to the Conservation land, to the types of transportation people wanted to use, and to where people were living. It was a little bit overwhelming at times, but it was pretty cool!”
Students designed the trail with GIS, (Geographical Information System) mapping specialists, conservation authorities, and Rachelle Larocque, urban planner of the township of West Lincoln.
“I really enjoyed using the GIS program”, shares Alex Boekestyn. The trail we were planning is right by a creek, and the program let us determine things like the water levels in different areas at different times of the year—it was fascinating!”
[caption id=”attachment_12062” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Southcreek Trail under construction.[/caption]
Boekestyn also shared some of the challenges that came with designing a trail as a class.“It’s difficult to find things that people would enjoy along the trail, and to be innovative, so that people wouldn’t just walk along the trail and see things they see all the time. We wanted to find things that were interesting and that would really grab people’s attention, while still making sure the trail was functional.”
“It’s been a long road,” says teacher Vandendool. “There’s always the question of whether or not it’s actually going to happen. First there was the agreement that they wanted to do this with us, and then we had to wait for the grant writing to happen, and then the grant was given, which was really cool. That was a lot of hard work on Rachelle’s [the urban planner] part. For three years she was integral in getting us to this spot and creating this opportunity for our students as well.”
When asked how the students felt about the length of time it took to complete this project, Vandendool reflects,“My students understood that this was a process, and that it was going to take time.” Some parts were more frustrating, such as when the students presented their proposal as part of a town council meeting and community members protested the concept of a trail backing onto their properties.
“Understanding community relations and being a part of that conversation is really important for students,” says Vandendool. “It makes the final outcome even more gratifying.”
Students and community members are now walking and running on the trail, and the community has embraced it.
[caption id=”attachment_12070” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Smithville community members enjoy taking a walk along the newly constructed SouthCreek trail.[/caption]
Not only is Vandendool thankful for the project opportunity, she is also thankful for the relationship that has been established between members of the township and her students. Those relationships have continued, and other school projects have resulted from the South Creek Trail project.
“The township knows that we’ve done a good job of researching for this project, and so they keep giving us new tasks to research for them.” Subsequent Geography classes have researched and planted trees along the trail. And this past year students were asked to help with the design of six land plots that have become vacant in recent years due to development issues. The plots are being re-purposed, and Vandendool’s class has been asking questions such as, “What does the community need that is missing here?” and “What sorts of things could we put here to attract others to our town?” The students are tasked with coming up with ideas, as well as investigating mapping plans, learning about building sizes, and finding out more about the community they are serving.
“Basically, the township gives me my Geography project assignment every year,” laughs Vandendool. “It’s fantastic to be able to partner with someone from the public industry; we’ve learned to grow in respect for each other and to invest in one another. Our community knows who we are now.”
Other teachers at Smithville Christian High School have latched on to the idea and made their projects grow even bigger. For example, last year the Grade 11 Biology class decided to spend time researching the native species that are growing and living along the Twenty Mile Creek, and they created signage along the trail that was built so that anyone who is walking along the trail can read the information. These signs are another way that this school has become tied to the community in a positive way.
“We want students to be engaged in the community, and this project gives them voice, community engagement, and pride,” shares Vandendool. “This will be something they’ll come back to. Their grandchildren will come back to it someday and say, ‘My grandparent did this!’”
Note: An earlier edition of this article stated that the grade 9 class project was part of a Civics class. It has since been corrected to reflect that it was a grade 9 Geography class project.