Butterflies are free to fly at St. Paul campus of Holy Cross Academy in North Canton.

Butterflies are free to fly at St. Paul campus of Holy Cross Academy in North Canton.

Twenty-five sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the school's monarch butterfly center for learning program celebrated their newly constructed butterfly garden with a garden party on May 28 and released two monarch butterflies they had watched develop from the larvae (caterpillar) stage.

Planning that began in a cold, snowy January resulted in a 22-square-foot garden complete with a bench, a walking path, a statue of St. Francis and annuals and perennials planted specifically for the monarch butterfly.

“It truly is the kids' work,” said Natalie Murphy, science teacher for the middle school grades. “It's what they wanted. What you see is their design.”

Beginning in early January, students met once a week for an hour to research monarch butterflies, their habitats and their food sources. They ordered milkweed seeds to grow host plants for the caterpillars, developed lesson plans to teach younger students, painted garden stones, and created a website to document their progress. They also designed and planted the garden.

“I liked how we all worked together to come up with the design,” said Madison Smith at the prayer service blessing the garden. “And then creating it was fun.”

Madison said she signed up for butterfly center of learning because she likes nature and butterflies.

“I thought it would be really cool to see the butterflies form and go from caterpillar to butterfly,” she said.

During the course, students heard from local experts about butterflies, appropriate plants and garden design. Jim Nero from Beech Creek Botanical Garden in Alliance visited the classroom, as did Bryan Rice from Rice's Nursery. Nero also donated milkweed plants for the caterpillars to eat.

Each caterpillar eats 18 inches of mature milkweed, Murphy said. While the students had grown the plant in the classroom, the caterpillars quickly consumed the leaves.

The semester-long study of monarch butterflies was a result of a $2,000 grant from the National Catholic Education Association. St. Paul School received one of 10 Monarch Rescue grants awarded to schools in the midwest that are along the butterflies' migration route. The purpose of the grant is to help teachers develop and implement science learning modules and butterfly gardens to help bring the monarch butterfly back from the brink of extinction

Money from the grant was used to purchase growing lights, a rain barrel for a sustainable water source, a garden hose and a variety of nectar plants to attract butterflies, Murphy said. It was also used to purchase a butterfly growing kit from Monarch Watch, a nonprofit educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas.

Murphy was surprised by how much time the students dedicated to project outside of school and by how much they enjoyed gardening.

After Max McQueen, the middle school social studies teacher, tilled the garden, the students mixed organic materials into the soil, laid down a weed tarp, put in the walking paths, planted the plants and mulched.

“Those kids stayed after school for several days,” she said, to prepare the garden. “They all dug right in there and did the work that had to be done.”

Students will care for the garden over the summer by signing up for shifts to water, deadhead annuals and weed.

Murphy said she hopes to continue the initiative next school year by purchasing more butterfly growing kits.

In addition to creating the butterfly garden, the group also cleaned up a small prayer garden near the school and rededicated it the memory of Kevin Kulik, a young student who died in the late 1990s after battling a childhood cancer.