Kara Contreras among three nationwide chosen to teach webinar on outdoor classrooms 

Brixner Junior High School teacher Kara Contreras has two classrooms – one inside and one outside.

Over the past three years, Contreras and her ecology students created an outdoor classroom that attracts pollinators, provides habitat for the endangered monarch butterfly, and last spring was home to fledgling barn owls. That classroom – called a Schoolyard Habitat – earned Brixner an Eco-Schools USA Bronze Award from the National Wildlife Federation for exceptional achievement in educating for sustainability.


To receive the award, Brixner students and staff, led by Contreras, tackled a sustainability initiative that began with forming an eco-action team, auditing an environmental focus area, and engaging and building community. These steps led to creation of an outdoor classroom and garden that raises environmental awareness, connects students to the natural world, improves the school’s environmental footprint, and increases student engagement.

Contreras also was among three educators nationwide chosen by the National Wildlife Federation to teach a series of webinars designed to help others design, develop, and implement schoolyard habitat programs and outdoor classrooms at their schools.

“It’s not just about the garden. It’s about the why behind it,” Contreras said. “It’s not just a pretty place. It is tied into the local ecosystem.”

The garden or schoolyard habitat is just one piece of her overall curriculum. Students raise trout eggs in the winter months and take field trips to wetlands and learn about migratory birds of the Pacific Flyway.

The project started in fall of 2018 when Contreras wanted to create a course that focused on hands-on, outdoor learning. She discovered a program through the National Wildlife Federation called Schoolyard Habitat. She dug in, started an elective ecology course, and later received grant funding that helped expand the native plant garden students designed and developed on the school campus.

The first year, Bogatay Construction provided two loads of dirt for the garden, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife donated plants.

The garden’s first feature was a monarch waystation featuring milkweed, a native plant essential to the life cycle of the endangered western monarch butterfly. Monarchs need milkweed to lay eggs because its leaves are the only food the monarch caterpillar can eat. Because the plant is toxic to cattle, it is removed from grazing lands. Over the last 20 years, it also has been removed from yards and gardens, putting the monarch at risk of extinction.

The plight of the monarch was a good way to introduce her students to the need for habitats and related environmental issues.

“I knew if I got invested so quickly, the kids probably would too,” she said. “Something iconic like a monarch butterfly is an easy place to start tough conversations. It’s a good launching point to then ask students, ‘What about species that aren’t so beautiful?’ ”

The rest of the garden features native plants such as flaxseed and fireweed that attract pollinators. In addition to the ecology class, Contreras offers Eco-Club, where students meet before school to participate in the schoolyard habitat projects.

Last spring, students were able to see fledgling barn owls that nested in a nearby shed and spent time in the garden near the milkweed. Contreras said plans include adding more plants to the garden this fall and planting a row of trees in an area to the south.

Ruben Paschal, principal of Brixner Junior High School, is impressed with Contreras’ ability to design curriculum that introduces students to real life issues.

“It’s amazing to see students in different environments outside the classroom,” he said. “Mrs. Contreras does an excellent job getting students excited about hands-on projects that make a lasting impact.”

Brixner Junior High School teacher is among three educators nationwide chosen by the National Wildlife Federation to teach a series of webinars designed to help others design, develop, and implement schoolyard habitat programs and outdoor classrooms at their schools. She designed and implemented an award-winning program at her school.

Over the past three years, Brixner Junior High School teacher Kara Contreras and her ecology students created an outdoor
classroom that attracts pollinators, provides habitat for the endangered monarch butterfly, and last spring was home to fledgling
barn owls.

Milkweed, featured in the garden at Brixner Junior High School, is the only plant on which the endangered western monarch butterfly can lay eggs.

Last spring, students were able to see fledgling barn owls that nested in a nearby shed and spent time in the garden near the milkweed.