Multnomah County: Fifth graders monitor, plant and paddle the slough to create a positive relationship with their home watershed.

The Columbia Slough is a hidden gem on the northeast edge of Portland—a place to paddle a canoe, watch birds and experience nature.

“It’s one of Portland’s best-kept secrets,” says Jennifer Starkey, Education Director for the Columbia Slough Watershed Council. “A lot of people don’t know that the slough exists. Our organization’s job is to help people know it’s there and take care of it.”

Thanks to the Watershed Council, a group of fifth graders is getting to know the slough intimately. With support including from the Gray Family Foundation, the Council leads a program called SERVE, or Student Engaged in Restoring Vital Ecosystems. A series of field trips and classroom work guides fifth graders from three Title 1 schools to get first-hand experience monitoring and restoring their watershed.

“It’s s a yearlong project that is intended to help those fifth graders develop a relationship with a natural area, and then take ownership of improving that site so that the overall water quality will be improved the the Columbia Slough,” Starkey says. Participating schools included Boise Eliot Humboldt, Sitton and Fairview Elementary Schools.

In the fall, each class goes out to assess a Portland Parks site and measure water quality. Then Starkey’s team of educators visits the classroom for a unit about native plants. In the winter, each class returns to their site to plants hundreds of young native trees and shrubs provided by Portland Parks and Recreation.

“At the end of the year, the students come back and they get to see how their plants are doing and how the area has been affected by their work.”

Each school gets its own site within a Portland Parks Natural Area. This year, the sites are at Kelley Point Park and Wilkes Creek Headwaters. In the future, students will work on Four Corners Natural Area in East Portland.

“It’s great to give students positive experiences in those places, and then giving them ownership over what to do there.”

The program culminates with a canoe trip on the slough—an adventure many of the students, or many Portlanders, for that matter, have ever had before.

“We’re giving students an opportunity to create a positive relationship with the place,” Starkey says.

In addition to the SERVE program, the Council utilizes Gray Family support to reach the more than 40 schools in three school districts in the watershed, which is one of the state’s most diverse.