Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com

Nov. 30, 2005 - If Roadrunner Elementary School looks cooler than it did last week, thank the several hundred students who helped plant 22 trees on its playground on the day before Thanksgiving.

The early morning dig Nov. 23 proved to be more difficult than anticipated, with rock-hard dirt slowing the progress of metal shovels and pickaxes. But within an hour, students put their heads together to plant shade trees across a large area that was mostly foliage-free beforehand.

Sixth-grader Eduardo Torres worked feverishly to dig a hole to plant a three-foot mesquite tree, while classmate Austin Maudsley ran back and forth, bringing containers of water to help moisten the ground. Nearby, one of the youngest volunteers, 5-year-old A.J. Marcer, helped shovel the first few piles of dirt for a tree that stood slightly taller than him.

Trico Electric donated the small trees - a mixture of oak, desert willow, mesquite, pine and ash - as part of its Operation Cool Shade program. School officials are hoping this will be the first step toward a serious upgrade of the school's landscaping, including improvements to the playground, which boasts more barren dirt than areas where students can enjoy shade.

"We desperately need shade in various areas," said Principal Michael Hitchcock, who said he fully supports the efforts of fourth-grade teacher Keli Dungan, the driving force behind the project.

Dungan, a longtime Marana resident, spearheaded the project in hopes that her students will help design a master landscape plan for Roadrunner, 16651 W. Calle Carmela, that includes plants, gardens, benches, patios and a pond in the school's courtyard. She plans to relate each aspect of the project to what her students are learning in class, she said.

"The more attachment they have and feeling of belonging to their school, the better they'll take care of the community," said Dungan, who spent her Thanksgiving weekend watering and caring for the newly-planted trees.

"What else to be thankful for than such a donation to the school?" she said.

Dungan said she began pushing the idea of a landscape project at Roadrunner last year after hearing about Operation Cool Shade, a program in which Trico distributes shade trees to its customers to help beautify their homes and save money on electric bills. Dungan said she approached officials at the power company who informed her about two weeks ago that they'd be happy to donate leftover trees to Roadrunner.

"We had kids so excited that they were telling their parents they could not go on vacation for Thanksgiving until after the trees were planted," she said, adding that classrooms are also stepping up to adopt trees to make sure they receive proper care throughout the school year.

Sixth-graders Joanne Emerick and Aubree Laeman know they won't be at the school long enough to see the trees grow to their full size, but they're confident other generations of students will make sure their efforts prove worthwhile.

"We didn't want to do it at first because we thought it would just be dirty, but now it's kind of fun and I think it's cool to be involved," Laeman said as she helped to plant a tree last week. "I think it will put more beauty into the school."

After the dig, fourth-graders wrote essays from the perspective of the trees they helped plant. Dungan told her students to write about how their tree will feel as it starts to grow and spread its roots.

"I want you to think about the life of that poor little tree," she said. "It's getting a new home, but where did it come from and how did it get here?"

Fourth-graders Danielle Hogan and Monique Moreland wrote essays in which they said the tree needs love and care. Classmate Savannah Moore drew a picture and wrote a short essay in which she said the tree enjoys the company of birds and other animals.

Fourth-grade teacher Karen Sayers had her students make books with drawings of the trees they planted and a short essay about what the trees need to survive.

"I think this is a great opportunity, and I think it's going to encourage more development of the rest of the playground," Sayers said of last week's effort.

Dungan said the school will be writing for grants to help fund a drip-irrigation system, and she's looking for an organization to sponsor a weather station at the school. She eventually wants to have a space where students can perform science activities in nature, including gardens where they can study plant lifecycles and wildlife, she said.

Hitchcock, who thanks Dungan for getting the ball rolling, said the project has just begun and the school will probably seek grants to help fund many of the components, including a butterfly garden.

"Keli is a person who definitely cares about her community, and her enthusiasm and love for learning is a part of her classroom," Hitchcock said. "Her love for the community is a big part of what drives all of this."

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