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