Red Emperor tulips at Drew Model School in Arlington are part of Journey North’s Test Tulip Gardens, a national program to track the arrival of spring. (Lila Ross)

Tulips have brightened local gardens in the past several weeks, but for kids at more than a dozen Washington area schools, the blooms weren’t just pretty flowers. They were the payoff for work and studying that began last fall.

“When they actually bloom, [students] can’t believe they planted something that turned into a beautiful flower,” said Dale Glass of National Presbyterian School in Washington.

Glass, who teaches science, had her third-grade students plant 38 Red Emperor tulip bulbs as a Journey North Tulip Test Garden, part of a nationwide program that helps kids learn about climate and the arrival of spring.

In October, the students studied the bulbs — measuring them, asking questions and making predictions. Then they put the bulbs into planter boxes near the playground and let Journey North know about the planting date. The school’s garden became one of hundreds of brown dots on an online map. Then students watched and waited.

At Drew Model School in Arlington, where Lila Ross’s Montessori students had planted 25 Red Emperors, kids were checking for those brown dots to turn green as tulips in warmer areas started to emerge in January. Ross and the students wondered whether Washington’s unusually cold and snowy winter would affect their tulips.

“They bloomed at the normal time,” said Ross, who has been part of the project for many years. “It really didn’t affect them as much as we thought it would.”

The dots, which are changed to red as the tulips bloom, are still green and even brown in some areas. New England schools are waiting for flowers, and in Alaska, the shoots haven’t emerged.

Mary Hosier, who works for Journey North, said the program, which began almost 20 years ago, reaches about 1.1 million children. Its Web site,, also features science projects on robins and monarch butterflies. Hosier said Journey North provides classroom materials, but what the students really enjoy are the hands-on activities. “There’s a lot of action that we try to create,” she said.

Even after the blooms fade, Glass’s students won’t be finished. They plan to dig up the bulbs, take them home and pave the way for next year’s third-graders to chart spring’s arrival.

— Christina Barron