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Arbor Day Foundation Tree Certified Campus

“Visitation schools encourage an awareness of and care for the gifts of God’s creating hand.”

Educating the Mind and Heart in the Visitation Tradition

Visitation School recently received “Tree Campus” recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation, making it the sole K-12 institution in Minnesota to attain this honor. This recognition underlines the school's deep-rooted commitment to maintaining the school’s campus begun by the Visitation Sisters in 1965. The Arbor Day Foundation, an organization devoted to tree conservation and environmental education, initiated the Tree Campus K-12 program to encourage schools to actively engage in tree-related educational initiatives and conservation activities. 

A Remarkable Connection

The journey began as an unexpected homecoming for Teddy Paterson, a 2000 graduate of Visitation Lower School and arborist for SavATree. SavATree was hired by the Visitation Sisters’ longtime Business Manager Bob Gilsdorf who recognized that the 66-acre campus needed tree care and for “the ongoing preservation of its history and legacy that the Sisters gave us.” This decision has led to remarkable connections for students, Sisters, faculty and the overall Vis community.

“It started with a call about hazardous trees. My work with Vis has grown to be more instep in my role as an alum because it has sentimental value. Vis is my only customer where I am meeting with a class or planting a tree. That component is unique to Visitation and reflective of how special this school is,” Paterson said.

Caring for God’s Creation

When the Visitation Sisters moved to the Mendota Heights campus in 1966, the campus looked much different than it does now. The former farmland was a blank and bare canvas. Through a partnership with the Village of Mendota Heights, during the summers of 1965 and 1966, the Sisters planted more than 1,000 trees. Through the years, the trees have grown, and native trees have spread to create the luscious campus that currently exists. 

“We met with Bob and asked important questions. Visitation has a huge campus, with a lot of trees, how are you managing it? SavATree can be a resource and together we can build a plan to be proactive to protect and care for the trees,” recalled Paterson.

As part of the planning, SavATree developed a digital tree inventory, tagging each tree on the campus with a unique ID number. The map, similar to a Google Earth map, provides an aerial view of the campus, pinpointing where each tree is located, and an assessment of each tree. “The map is a valuable tool as it gives us a consulting inventory so we can assess all the trees, and provide hazard mitigation. This is a work in progress,” Paterson said. 

In addition to removing hazardous trees, SavATree removed many Ash trees due to Emerald Ash Borer disease and pruned several others. Paterson said it is the mature trees that set the Visitation campus apart and the priority is to preserve them as much as possible. He also emphasized the importance “to not only plant trees suitable for the area but also introduce species not currently present on campus. This promotes resilience against diseases and minimizes threats. A more diverse tree population enhances our ability to combat potential losses.”

Integrating Trees into Curriculum 

Tara Schletz, Lower and Middle School Curriculum Enrichment Specialist, spearheaded a collaborative project involving faculty, staff and students. The primary aim was to educate students about the historical and environmental significance of the trees on campus and out of this work to eventually attain the Certified Tree Campus status. Scheltz partnered with Colleen Hansen, Visitation Mendota Heights Archivist and Paterson to bring the campus and its history to life in the classroom.

“Colleen provided the historical significance and background for students. They were encouraged to develop empathy for the Sisters by putting themselves in the Sisters ‘shoes’ as they walk on campus,” Schletz explained. “Teachers were able to infuse tree education into the existing classroom curriculum in units and Teddy was able to make classroom visits and share his tree knowledge with our students.”

In a unique integration, each class adopted a tree on the campus, studying and observing it over time. As part of the curriculum, students visited their assigned observation trees, created art, and documented their findings in a digital book.

Through these activities, “I hope that students can see the work of the Sisters and their love and care for our school and the land that surrounds it. This tree campus recognition is one way that we can continue to learn from the Sisters and carry forward their desire to care for the gifts that they have given us,” Schletz said. 

Part of the Tree Campus recognition program includes a celebration of Arbor Day, typically held on the last Friday in April. This past April, the Kindergarten Class of 2023, joined by Sister Katherine Mullin ‘55, who helped plant the original trees on campus, planted one of the first “legacy trees” at Visitation, a Blue Beech. “By far my favorite part so far of working with Visitation has been planting the kindergarten tree. It was so neat that Sister Katherine was able to attend, I remembered her from when I was at Vis. Her being there at the planting felt like a metaphor for this project. It was almost like she was handing over a baton to the next generation who will benefit from and care for this campus,” Paterson said. 

Towards the Future

Visitation's dedication to tree education will extend to Middle School and Upper School divisions over the next year. A Tree Campus Committee that spans all areas of the school is being developed to inspire curriculum integration, environmental stewardship and discussion. With this vision, Visitation School continues to exemplify how “Legacy Leads the Way" in nurturing and safeguarding God's creation.

Colleen Hansen, Mendota Heights Visitation Archivist, reflects on the significance of this project, remarking, "We are the custodians of a rich history and legacy from the Sisters. The Tree Campus Project and the care for our campus represents another way for us to carry forward the Sisters' legacy for the next 150 years."

And Bob Gilsdorf, who made that crucial call to SavATree, the Tree Campus Award is in “recognition of the Sisters’ gift to this campus of the many trees they planted years ago that now grace our beautiful grounds and its contribution to the environment.”