Students explore nature in densely built Los Angeles

Educators hope this elementary school will foster a commitment to science and conservation.

 

California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

Fourth grade students at Esperanza Elementary School search for pollinators in their schoolyard habitat. The area used to be an asphalt lot.
Ruxandra Guidi/High Country News

On a warm September morning at Esperanza Elementary School, principal Brad Rumble and I peeked into a classroom where students had gathered to do some birdwatching. Kids piled up by the window, screaming excitedly about a small yellow bird, what it looked like, and whether or not they had seen it before. “You just missed the male yellow warbler,” Rumble explained. “Our Guatemalan students refer to it as ‘chipe.’ ” The species can be a rare sight in Los Angeles, not because warblers are uncommon, but because they often go unnoticed amidst all the hubbub. These budding birders, though, have come to expect the species back at their school each fall.

Esperanza Elementary’s big, fenced-in building is located at a busy intersection just two miles from downtown LA, a part of the city without many trees or parks. Most of Esperanza’s 800 students are second and third-generation immigrant kids from Mexico and Central America, living in one of the most dense and park-poor areas of the city. Yet by teaching kids how to observe, document and care about nature in the unlikeliest of places, Esperanza Elementary School is making them environmental stewards for many years to come.

Rumble, an avid birder, has shared his love of birdwatching with the students as a way to get them to recognize nature and its value where they live. “I’d been teaching for 20 years and birding for 12, but coming to this very dense urban environment brought those two interests together,” Rumble told me. “I needed to find ways to get teachers and students outside.” The choice, he said, was between having the kids do a drawing of a butterfly or going outside to take a look at a real one. He wanted to spark students’ curiosity in the world beyond the built environment, or what’s portrayed on TV. “I see birds as the ambassadors to the natural world,” said Rumble. In other words: Get them to start with the birds, even from inside the school building, and everything else will follow.

This shift began three years ago, when Rumble became principal. Before this, the students spent most of their days inside the classroom. But a new garden changed everything: Using school infrastructure funds, Rumble peeled off the asphalt in parts of the parking lot and the playground. He reached out to Los Angeles Audubon, which guided the process of building a native garden that would attract birds and other pollinators, while the National Wildlife Federation, an 82-year-old conservation organization, gave the garden its stamp of approval, as part of its national Schoolyard Habitats initiative. Rumble also turned the school’s old equipment warehouse into a natural history library, and he encouraged teachers to develop curricula emphasizing science skills, such as data gathering and observation.

Today, students use magnifying glasses and gather simple observational data in their schoolyard habitat, where native shrubs such as mulefat and deergrass attract birds and insects. During my visit, I joined Gaspar, a fourth-grader with a shaved head, as he made the rounds at the garden holding a list of insects to check off. “At my house, I’ve seen like 30 flies. Does that count?” He asked me. Before waiting for my response, he decided to include his observations from home in the data set, too.

Later, I sat in on a science class for about 15 third and fourth graders at the school’s natural history library. Across the room stood Amy Jaecker-Jones, coordinator of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s community science program, which is partnering with Esperanza Elementary School on science education.

Jaeker-Jones led a discussion about what pollinators do. A girl named Annie, who wore red ribbons in her hair, said she knew pollinators carried pollen in their feet from flower to flower, which allowed plants to reproduce. A little voice in the back pointed out how the bright yellow pollen stuck on bees’ legs was just like the crumbs at the bottom of the kids’ favorite snack bag: Cheeto’s. The students nodded, knowingly.

After three years, the school’s efforts are making a difference. “We have witnessed students’ comfortability with scientific tools increase,” said Lila Higgins, a community science educator from the Natural History Museum. “They are now familiar with camera trapping tools and techniques, iNaturalist (the online citizen science project), the use of insect nets and vials, and photography skills.” The goal, Higgins said, is to get these immigrant city kids drawn to conservation issues — and ideally, into careers in science.

In the nearer term, students at Esperanza are collaborating with the Natural History Museum to make a kids’ field guide to pollinators, which will be available for checkout at local libraries and museums. Species will be listed in the book by their English, Spanish and scientific names. 

This fall, Gaspar, Annie, and at least 100 other students and teachers at Esperanza will take a field trip to a much, much bigger habitat: Griffith Park, LA’s largest municipal park. They’ll join hundreds of other students for P-22 Day, named after Los Angeles’ iconic, yet elusive, mountain lion, which roams the Santa Monica Mountains. P-22 Day, the brainchild of the National Wildlife Federation, is an effort to engage children and their families on urban conservation issues — from threats to bees posed by pesticides, to the need for a wildlife crossing in the Santa Monica Mountains, where freeways crisscross mountain lion habitats. 

“The kids are concerned,” Rumble told me. “They know that P-22 needs more space to roam.” Last year Esperanza Elementary School’s entire third grade class wrote heartfelt letters to P-22. This year, he said, they might perform poems dedicated to the mountain lion they hope to see — or even get to study — someday.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify the names of the organizations involved in creating Esperanza Elementary School’s garden.

Ruxandra Guidi is a contributing editor at High Country News. She writes from Los Angeles, California.

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