Workers Thursday began raising the walls of the Laguna Foundation educational center, a barn-shaped structure meant to meld with the farmland it stands on.

The building will be central to the non-profit foundation's work to educate 1,000 elementary school children a year about the value of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and also expand it to middle and high school grades, said David Bannister, the foundation executive director.

"We have an educational program called Learning the Laguna that involves both classrooms and field trips for elementary school kids," Bannister said. "We also have adult walks where we have docent-led walks into the laguna."

The laguna is a 16-mile waterway from the Russian River to Cotati that is rich in wildlife and plants and also acts as a winter floodwater basin.

It recently was designated as a wetlands of international importance by the Ramsar Convention, a group represented by 160 countries, including the United States.

The Laguna Foundation also is building an outdoor learning center that will include trails, an observation deck and a pond stocked with fish and plants native to the laguna.

It will be open to the public for drop-in visits when it and the educational building are finished in January or February.

The $800,000 project, financed by a California Coastal Conservancy grant, is the second phase of construction on the foundation's six-acre property.

"We are in a renovated 1860s era farmhouse that was turned into office, which we moved into two years ago," Bannister said. "From this farmhouse you will be able to throw a rock and you can hit the pond or new building."