DENVER, Colo. - Garden Place Academy stands in an aging Hispanic neighborhood, teeming with fast-food outlets and liquor stores. But inside, you wouldn't know that an inch of top soil was removed from the neighborhood last year because it contained lead from a local mine. Today the school is alive with spring fever. Dioramas and mobiles depicting Cinco de Mayo celebrations adorn the hallways. A fourth-grade class returns from recess, bubbling over with energy. Enter Gail Shands, director of Denver Audubon's Urban Education Project, with the announcement of the afternoon activity:


"All right, everybody line up. We're going outside to learn about the earth," she says.


"Outside! Yeah!" cries one student, anxious to get out of his chair on a beautiful spring day. "This is going to be cool."


Although there are a number of groups that take urban children away from the city to teach environmental awareness, the Audubon project's approach is part of a new trend in outdoor education.


"Our logic is that there's plenty of animal and plant life to be enjoyed right here in the city," says Shands, "and the kids can go home and appreciate these things where they live."


Today's lesson is about how plants grow. Shands and her team of five volunteers, most of them neighborhood parents, lead the students outside carrying soil samples, trowels and seeds. The kids add organic soil to the contaminated dirt from the school grounds. Then an aluminum solution is added to the soil mixture, which separates it into its different components.


"Check it out! That's fresh," says James, 10, holding his container in the sunlight. "That's the stuff that makes plants grow, James," says Shands, pointing to the top level of organic matter, "and that's what the ground here needs more of." James nods.


At the end of the day the kids take home Dixie cups filled with healthy soil to plant their own seeds. A debate swells over whose plant will grow the tallest. One student seems to think she will grow a banana tree.


Today's project was the first in a series of nine activities that Denver Audubon will provide for the fourth grade at Garden Place; other lessons will include building bird feeders, looking at worms and collecting leaves. "These are projects that the public schools just don't have the funding or the staff for," says Shands.


The Denver Audubon's Urban Education Project was founded 12 years ago by Karen Hollweg. The project's success in Denver prompted the National Science Foundation to give Hollweg a grant to disseminate the program nation-wide. Known nationally as Volunteer-led Investigations of Neighborhood Ecology (VINE), the program now boasts 15 examples in other cities, based on the Denver model.


The other Western city with a VINE program is Seattle. Anita Larenberg runs Finding Urban Nature (FUN), which reached 1,560 kids in public schools this year with the help of 277 adult volutneers.


A study conducted in 1994 by the North American Association for Environmental Education found that nearly all the students and teachers involved said they wanted to have more outdoor education programs. An examination of the kids' artwork shows clearly that the program changed their perceptions of an urban community. Those who hadn't participated in the Audubon program drew parking lots and high-rise buildings. Three-quarters of those who had, drew birds, trees and flowers among the urban fixtures.


Another part of the program is the Science Leadership Program which teaches high school students to become volunteers. This year more than 100 teens in Denver taught third-, fourth- and fifth-graders about the environment. Chosen from science classes in public high schools, the teen leaders all have troubled pasts and are interested in helping younger kids avoid the pitfalls they experienced growing up. In return for their help, the Audubon Society places the student leaders in summer jobs in the environmental science field.


"We realize that environmental awareness must start at home," says Shands. "Hopefully this will inspire them to start exploring other places outside of their own neighborhoods."


Making her way back to the car at the end of the school day, Shands is surrounded by a group of kids shouting, "When are you coming back?"


* Bill Taylor, HCN intern