Idaho students encounter history in visit to site of WWII internment camp
The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho
EDEN, Idaho — Surrounded by an expansive desert landscape, a group of Buhl Middle School students watched as Carol Ash pointed to something in the distance.
“Look that direction over to that telephone pole,” she told students.
At the Minidoka National Historic Site, the eighth-graders shifted their bodies and looked.
“That’s where the camp began,” Ash said.
Then, she passed out pictures of what the area looked like as a relocation camp in the 1940s.
The chief of interpretation and education for the Minidoka National Historic Site and Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument led a group of students on a tour.
More than 100 eighth-graders from Buhl Middle School spent this week learning about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
On Friday, students wrapped up their lessons with a visit to the historical site. They cleaned up the area and took a guided tour.
The Minidoka Relocation Center was one of 10 centers in the United States where more than 120,000 West Coast people of Japanese ancestry were forced to live during World War II.
It opened in 1942 and closed about three years later.
Students visited the site as a service learning project through Buhl Middle School’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP. The school received about $58,500 through a federal grant and put up the same amount in matching funds.
Through the program, students complete two service learning projects. Friday’s clean up effort was one of them.
GEAR UP is a federal initiative, with funding for schools with a high percentage of low-income students.
The goal: To better prepare students to succeed after high school.
After a week of studying about the Japanese-American internment, students got to see the site of the old relocation camp.
“They have more of an appreciation for it,” Buhl Middle School’s GEAR UP coordinator Adrea Storey said.
The historical site is right “in our backyard,” she said, but students weren’t aware it existed.
“None of our kids even knew what this was or where this was,” she said.
On Friday, students hauled trash items, cleared the area around the old fire station, cleaned park signs, removed weeks and picked up garbage.
Ash told students that it’s a large job to maintain and restore historical sites. She only has three staff members to maintain two historical sites.
“What you did today is really important,” she said.
Eighth-grader Julie Nejezchleba said she spent the morning cleaning park signs.
This week, she said she learned that Japanese-Americans’ rights were violated, even though “they were just like us.”
“It’s just unreal,” she said.
She said she also learned how little living space they had at the camp.
Her classmate Amanda DeWitt said she learned this week about how the civil rights of internees were violated.
Launching an educational program
In September, Buhl school employees contacted Ash to ask about the possibility of having students come out to the site.
There wasn’t any curriculum in place already to teach students about Japanese-American internment.
The groups worked to develop a week-long curriculum.
This week, students completed the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program.
Ash said the Buhl Middle School week was a pilot program. She said she’d love to do more with schools.
“This seemed like a perfect way to try this out,” she said.
The Japanese-American internment is a tough topic, Ash said, that’s more appropriate for older students.
For students, the week began with a presentation by Annette Rousseau, education specialist for the Minidoka National Historic Site.
Curriculum included cultural arts programs, as well as a look at children who were internees at the camp.
Storey said she’d like the service-learning project to become a yearly occurrence for eighth-graders.
Another goal, she said, is to look at expanding the curriculum over two weeks.
Social studies teacher Theresa Silvester said it has been a good project and hopes to tweak it for future years.
She said she hopes students will tell others about the site, which plays an interesting role in Idaho’s history.
“They’ve done their part to preserve and protect the site,” she said.
In the 1940s, there were about 600 structures at the Minidoka Relocation Center. It spanned about 33,000 acres.
Now, there are only a few buildings left.
After the camp closed, many of the buildings were moved off the land.
Ash told a group of students that people could buy a whole building, half or a third of one. Buildings served a variety of purposes — from homes to barns.
Ash said a number of them went to Jerome High School and were used as classrooms. And others were used as housing for a labor camp.
Restoring the historical site
The Minidoka National Historic Site was created in 2001.
After years of planning, restoration efforts have accelerated over the past one-and-a-half years.
Currently, one project is restoring a guard tower on the property. Boise State University’s School of Engineering is working on the project, Ash said.
It’s scheduled for completion in November 2013. The Friends of Minidoka group was awarded a grant for the project.
Last year, a 1.6-mile trail was created so visitors can access different areas of the historic site.
There are also 23 signs along the way with information, as well as directional signs.
Another project last year was reconstructing the Honor Roll.
It lists the names of Japanese Americans from the relocation center who served in the military during World War II.