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A Natural Classroom

Whether they're at the Oregon Coast or the Grand Canyon, these Reynolds Learning Academy students are an invasive plant's worst nightmare
by: Carole Archer, This group of students from Reynolds Learning Academy is on a mission to root out invasive plants and improve habitats through the Multnomah Youth Cooperative. In the front row, from left, are Jasmine Hernandez, Amber Schelot, Justin Davis and Satara Cook. Behind them, from left, are Michael Smith, Jason Clark, Program Leader Rose Sandy and K.C. Light. They are headed toward Beaver Creek against a mean East Wind on Friday, Dec. 8.

It's the last week of school before winter break at the Reynolds Learning Academy and students are a little louder, a bit more boisterous than normal.

They collect in the lobby area, laughing and pushing those few minutes between classes to the brink of being late.

In a tiny corner of this alternative high school, students from the Multnomah Youth Cooperative are gathered around a long table, their long limbs draped over chair arms and spread out beneath the metal-legged tables.

Unlike their peers, who are winding down from a long fall term, these students are just getting started.

Tomorrow they'll head to the coast, to the Jessie M. Honeyman State Park near Florence. They'll stay on the central coast until the end of the week, and by the time these 14 students have finished, Honeyman and the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport will both be more environmentally friendly places.

'We'll be removing ivy at Honeyman and Scotch broom at the aquarium,' explains Rose Sandy, program coordinator. Both are invasive weeds that choke out native vegetation, making it harder for the animals that depend on those native plants to find food and thrive.

Removing invasive species, restoring habitats and caring for wetlands are a few of the things this group of Reynolds Learning Academy students do every week throughout the Portland-metro area.

Funded by grants from the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps, the program is hands-on, and, at times, can be intense.

Kirk Hoodenpyl, a 16-year-old junior at the Learning Academy, says he remembers his first time out with the Youth Cooperative.

'It was so hot out, and we were in this big field. There was no shade,' Hoodenpyl says. 'It was bad.'

But the experience didn't dampen Hoodenpyl's enthusiasm.

'I liked going on that first trip and learning about the plants and the invasive species,' Hoodenpyl says.

On a recent field trip to build a more environmentally sensitive foot-ladder at Beaver Creek in Troutdale, the students faced frosty winds that at times were gusting at more than 40 mph.

'It was really cold,' says Justin Davis, a sophomore in the program. 'But you get used to it. It wasn't so bad.'

Davis is new to the Reynolds Learning Academy, but he says he already feels more comfortable than he did at the 'regular' high school.

'It's much more hands-on, and that's how I learn,' Davis says. 'It's better than just reading about something.'

Most of the students in this program agree this is what drew them to the Youth Cooperative program.

'My first year, last year, we learned about backpacking, about carrying everything we need in with us,' Hoodenpyl says. 'When we went to the Grand Canyon (for another invasive species' removal effort), we backpacked in.'

The students in this class sign on for a six-week commitment. If they like the program, they can sign up for more. Any student who completes 12 full months in the Youth Cooperative gets a $1,500 scholarship to the school of his or her choice.

Hannah Barrett, 17, has already completed much of her 12-month requirement. The Learning Academy senior says she hopes to continue with this type of work, and is looking at Mt. Hood Community College and Oregon State University for the schools' natural resources programs.

'Being in this class really improves your work ethic,' Barrett says.

'Yeah, you learn how to work together, as a team,' Hoodenpyl adds.

'And it makes you appreciate the outdoors,' says Jasmine Hernandez, a senior in the program.

Whatever their reasons for joining the program, these students are getting some real-life experience in landscaping, natural resources and environmental work, says Sandy.

'We do a lot of local work, especially in the Portland-metro area,' Sandy says. 'And we sometimes take trips like the ones to the Grand Canyon and to the coast.'

Last month, the students traveled to West Linn's Camassia Natural Area to help preserve the habitat of Oregon white oak trees, which are being choked out by fast-growing Douglas firs.

In the spring, they'll canoe down the Columbia Slough and learn about the native habitat there.

'You learn a lot about plants and invasives,' says David Filipetti, 16, a newcomer to the class. 'Before this, I had no idea there were two types of blackberries and that one was invasive. Now I know the difference.'