Lexington pupils' classroom is a creek

These are wonderful days at Lexington's Millcreek Elementary School, as groups of students are led out of their brick-and-mortar classrooms and encouraged to get their feet wet in an outdoor classroom called Mill Creek.

They use nets to scoop up insect larvae. They turn over rocks looking for egg sacs. They get muddy, and no one fusses at them.

If you are, say, a 71/2-year-old second-grader, it doesn't get much better than this.

"This is great; I get to find different animals" said Rohan Rauch. "Mostly, I've found snails."

"There's a lot," said his friend Grant Nolan. "I found some eggs, and some caddis fly larvae. The best thing is searching, and I can step on rocks."

In the past, one of the important rules at Millcreek was, "Stay away from the creek." The waterway at the edge of the playground was little more than a ditch, with an eroded bank that was a sharp 4-foot drop.

But this school year, everything has changed.

The creek was moved back a few yards. Its new banks are gentle slopes. It meanders the way a good creek should. Sticks and logs stick out of the water here and there. There are places where it is shallow and babbles over rocks, and deeper pools where fish would be comfortable.

The best part is that there now are "creek days" at Millcreek. Thursday and Friday are the first. There will be more next spring, and every year into the future.

Teachers already had shown the students slides of the various creatures they might expect to find in the creek, and how their presence could be used to judge water quality.

"Eventually, we want to have the teachers using this across the curriculum, not just for science," said Kelli Faulkner, the school's science lab teacher. "They can use it to do math lessons, or writing lessons."

There was some quick practice in addition Thursday as the second-graders tallied their finds with the help of Ashley Osborne from the University of Kentucky agricultural extension department.

The snails that curve "left-handed" when viewed from the top? They can live in just about any water, so they were worth only one point on the water quality scale. A dragonfly larva was worth two points. The larva of the caddis fly, which likes clean water, was worth three.

"We've got three points. And two more. How many is that?" Osborne asked.

Some students called out the answer right away, while a few were counting on their fingers.

The creek's relocation cost about $200,000, said Eric Dawalt, the project manager for Ridgewater LLC, which did the work. Most of the money came from a mitigation fund paid into when creeks are degraded by construction or other activities.

There also was a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Besides people from the UK extension department, instructors from UK's Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment are working with teachers and students. Students from Transylvania University and employees from Bluegrass PRIDE also were on hand. And University of Louisville students will monitor water quality for five years.

Eventually there will be trails, trees and native plants, so students can learn about them along with stream biology, Dawalt said.

The gently sloping banks will allow the creek to spread out after heavy rains, he said, reducing downstream flooding.

The trees will help improve water quality by taking up the water's excess nutrients.

And, at least twice a year, students will skip down to the creek and see what kind of creatures are living there.