WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), today welcomed Deer Creek School District's Grove Valley Elementary School Principal Debbie Straughn before the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. Inhofe asked Straughn to testify at today's hearing entitled, "Collaborative Solutions to Wildlife and Habitat Management" about the success of the outdoor classroom created at her previous school, Deer Creek Elementary, utilizing the Private Partners Program. Straughn and Deer Creek Elementary received the U.S. Department of Interior Pride in America Award.
"Debbie is one of Oklahoma's best principals and I was pleased to have her in Washington today to testify before the EPW Committee about the outdoor classroom she created at Deer Creek Elementary in Oklahoma," Inhofe said. "She has worked successfully to utilize the Partners program in a way that the entire school can learn more about the outdoors. I am hopeful we can expand this successful concept throughout Oklahoma and the nation."
In 2005, as Chairman of the EPW Committee, Inhofe was pleased to author and see the enactment of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act in October 2006. Inhofe also held a field hearing in Tulsa, Oklahoma in April 2005. The Partners Program has developed more than 41,000 private-landowner agreements, resulting in positive ecological and economic effects on tens of thousands of acres nationwide, including nearly 800,000 acres of wetlands, nearly 2 million acres of grassland and prairie habitat, and over 7,000 miles of in-stream habitat. In Oklahoma alone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program has provided nearly $5.5 million, while private landowners have contributed over $16.5 million to restore over 300,000 acres of habitat in Oklahoma through over 1,000 individual voluntary agreements with private landowners. The rate of public to private investment is 4 to 1.
Introducing Straughn before the Committee today, Inhofe noted that Straughn had testified previously at a 2005 EPW field hearing in Oklahoma, "It is very unusual, Debbie, that we have a witness coming back, and so it shows that we hold you in a very high regard. I say to my panel members that Ms. Straughn, she did the, kind of hit it up, the outdoor classroom thing at a school called Deer Creek. And it was so well done that she has now moved over to the current Grove Valley Elementary School and is doing the same thing.... [and] has done a great job and now we are just expanding her talents to other institutions."
Straughn also received praise from U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) for her efforts, saying he hoped the program would expand to his state.
Speaking with Straughn during the hearing, Cardin stated, "First, thank you for your passion on this subject and thank you for what you do for our children. I am convinced that you are right that if we can sensitize children to the awesome responsibilities we have that they will do what is right... I think that is critically important, and I am glad you figured out a way to get it done in Oklahoma."
Cardin added, "I think we need to try to institutionalize that a little better as far as sharing what is being done around the nation. Because it is no sense reinventing the wheel - you already have a successful program and can work in other communities. We just need to get that information out. I look forward to working with Fish and Wildlife in order to promote what you have done in Oklahoma. Great work."
In her testimony before the Committee, Straughn elaborated about how the outdoor classroom began.
"I feel it is very important for our children to be involved in an outdoor classroom because it gives them an opportunity to be outside and learn about their environment," Straughn said. "The outdoor classroom provides an ideal structured learning for the children and promotes ideal wildlife habitat. The teachers, students, and parents take ownership in their outdoor classroom. Every child at Deer Creek Elementary was involved in the outdoor habitat. For example, the kindergarten students constructed a bird sanctuary, the first grade students developed a flower garden, second grade a butterfly garden in the shape of a butterfly, third grade a vegetable garden, fourth grade a flower garden in the shape of Oklahoma, and fifth grade built a bird blind and a frog pond. We also built a gazebo, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Students utilized the gazebo for hands-on science experiments. They also helped us design wetlands, walkways with animal tracks, and artificial nesting structures for wildlife. This outdoor habitat gave children an interactive learning environment."
During his question time, Inhofe asked Straughn to provide any anecdotes to how her students have benefited from the outdoor classroom.
Straughn said, "I think it is really interesting to see children go out into a garden where they are growing various vegetables, and I had a kindergarten student one time who said, ‘I thought you got a tomato at a grocery store?' They don't really understand exactly how a tomato grows, and so they were very excited to take those tomatoes in, and they made some salsa out of it. So that was very exciting to be able to see firsthand children really make that connection of the plants and what they actually grow and how you can utilize them by cooking."
Following the hearing, Inhofe joined Straughn in using Skype to talk to second graders back at Grove Valley who watched the hearing online. Inhofe promised to make a trip to the school and see how the outdoor program was proceeding at Straughn's new school.