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Spotlight on lobos activos: César Chávez Elementary’s Environmental Enrichment Program By Lorie Ha

Spotlight on lobos activos: César Chávez Elementary’s Environmental Enrichment Program

By Lorie Hammond, PhD, Education Advisor, Davis Farm to School

A glimpse of the César Chávez Elementary (CCE) drought tolerant landscape

A class of fifth grade students are gathered on benches in the shade for their garden lesson.

Mrs. Pollex (MP) (garden teacher): (Holding up a leaf.) “Why do plants need leaves?”

Student A: “They gather sunlight.”

Student B: “They help plants to make sugar.”

MP: “Exactly. They make food for the plant.”

MP: “Why do you think leaves are different shapes?” MP holds up a single big maple leaf and a compound leaf made of many small leaflets. “These are both single leaves. Why might they have evolved like this?”

Student C: “To collect more sunlight?”

MC: “Yes, It helps for capturing sunlight, but there are other reasons too. It makes them more competitive in their native environments.

MC: “Look at this leaf. It has little tiny white dots on it. Why do you suppose they have them?”

Student D: “Are they a disease?”

MC: “Good guess but no.These little white dots help the leaf stay cool by shading its epidermus, or skin. Leaves have skin like we do, and they want to keep it cool.”

MC: “Today you will be exploring different kinds of leaves in the natural garden. Work with 2-3 friends to choose some leaves, then look at the handout (which shows drawings of different shapes of leaves and what they are called) and try to decide which type the leaves you have. Think about why leaves might have evolved in so many different shapes. You can either sketch the leaves or rub them with a pencil or crayon, then label them. There are clipboards, drawing tools, paper and the leaf diagrams on the table.”

Students immediately fan out into the garden. Although it is a hot afternoon, they are engaged. The lesson morphs into a bit of entomology as a student finds a praying mantis and another notices the ladybug larvae in the vegetable garden. Students discuss these things excitedly with Mrs. Pollex, who studied horticulture at UC Davis. They are also assisted by two parent volunteers, who have children in this fifth grade rotation. Different parent volunteers attend each age group’s classes, providing support to MP, and freeing classroom teachers to meet and plan while their students are in enrichment classes.

This simple lesson on leaves illustrates the power of the school garden as a teaching tool. First, it shows that garden exploration is science. Concepts such as photosynthesis and adaptation, which students have learned in science class, come to life in the garden. An expert teacher can help guide students to connect the dots between “book learning” and real world phenomena. We have all seen charts of leaf shapes with their names, such as “pinnate” and “palmate”, “simple” and “compound”. But the natural world is much more complex and confusing than these categories imply. Leaves come in many, many variations. Matching them with categories is not easy and provides food for thought.

The natural world opens new questions for exploration. Why are the leaves on one plant, which are all the same shape, different sizes from each other? Why are some leaves changing color for fall and others still green? Mrs. Pollex asks students: “What is a hypothesis?” They have learned that it is an educated guess. Many hypotheses about leaves could be generated from this lesson.

Second, this lesson illustrates how gardening in the real world is full body engagement. Students feel the scorching air of an Indian summer afternoon. They smell the plants, at the end of their cycle, drying in the sunshine. They see the shapes and feel the textures of different leaves. And students sense the difference in temperature between sun and shade, as, like animals, they seek shady places to work. The words “early fall” have gained dimension for these students. Visceral knowledge is not easily forgotten, because it is learned through all of our senses. I used to ask the novice teachers I was training to teach elementary science at CSU Sacramento what they remembered from their own elementary school science classes. Invariably, their most memorable experiences were on field trips. No one ever mentioned information from a book. Of course, academic and experiential learning are both necessary. But the information in books takes on deeper and more lasting meaning when we experience it in the real world. This is why garden class is so powerful.

Successful school gardens must be integrated into a school’s regular program. While gardens rely on parent and community volunteers, and could not exist without them, it is only when these gardens are integrated into the school program, that they reach their full learning potential. For this to happen, school gardens must be spearheaded by the principal and administrative team, as well as supported by teachers, parents and community volunteers. Luckily the principal of César Chávez Elementary (CCE), Veronica Dunn, defines CCE as a “garden school”, and embraces the garden in her vision of the school site and its educational program. Under her supervision, CCE is developing a many-pronged Environmental Enrichment Program (EEP) which includes both garden classes for all and the development of a sustainable school site. The existence of equitable garden classes at CCE is particularly appropriate given that the school’s inspiration comes from César Chávez, himself a leader in making agriculture more equitable and safe for workers.

CCE has created a site at which environmental science, food-to-fork gardening and a mindful connection to the natural world can be taught. The existence of gardens provides a background for teaching. Gardens are a living laboratory which makes learning possible. But in themselves they are not enough. Just as the science teacher must be an expert in her field, the garden teacher should be a paid expert, able to make the connection between the gardens and the important science curricula that they can teach. Mrs. Julia Pollex is such a teacher. In addition, schools need to allocate time to the garden program for all students, not just for those whose teachers initiate it. CCE’s enrichment program, now in its third year, serves all students regularly. It is a model from which other schools can learn.

CCE’s enrichment program, called Lobos Activos, marries three enrichment subjects which fit this Spanish immersion school’s specific culture and values. These programs are a Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) dance class, social and emotional lessons with the school counselor, and garden science led by Mrs. Pollex.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, from 1:00-2:30 PM, three classes representing one grade level of students rotate through each of these subjects. The time is short, about 22 minutes for each subject, but the programs are planned and taught by paid experts, as a regular part of the school curriculum, and are received by all students. Parent volunteers from each grade level assist the garden teacher. Their contributions are essential. But far from being an “add on” or a voluntary option, garden classes follow an expert-led curriculum which is part of the school instructional plan.

Mrs. Pollex, CCE’s garden teacher, is also a horticultural professor at Merritt College. Her own history illustrates why she has a passion for this program: “I always loved gardening as a child. My dad and grandpa were avid gardeners, but for me it was more of a chore and excuse to be with my family. It wasn't until 4th grade that gardening became a passion. My teacher took care of the school garden and a couple times a week she had the whole class pull weeds, sow seeds and just be out of the classroom. She also gave students the choice of going to the playground for recess or working in the garden. I was always in the garden.

“My professional life as a “hortie” started when I was 19. I got a job working for a city parks maintenance department and my coworker uttered a word I had never heard before – horticulture. I enrolled in an introductory course the following quarter with the intention of getting a certificate, but I quickly realized I wanted to immerse myself in the science of horticulture and pursue a degree beyond community college. I received a BS and MS degree in horticulture from UC Davis. My specialties are plant identification, plant selection and sustainable landscape maintenance.”

Mrs. Pollex’s curriculum combines both gardening activities and environmental science. All students, grades 1-6, receive the same curriculum, which follows the seasons in both the natural and vegetable gardens. While their time in the garden is short, all students experience a repeated and consistent program which fits into their busy schedules. A Spanish immersion school, teaching subjects in two languages, must be efficient. The enrichment activities on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are a refreshing change from regular academic life, but are also integrated with and supportive of CCE’s academic program. In addition to these activities, CCE is also planning and starting to carry out a pilot green schoolyard, as described below.

A Pilot Green Schoolyard at CCE: CCE’s volunteer garden parents have engaged the district and school leadership team in initiating a pilot green schoolyard at CCE. Designs have been developed by local horticultural expert Patricia Carpenter in collaboration with Ryan Deering, UC Davis Arboretum Horticulturist, and other community members (see rendering below). A green schoolyard goes beyond food gardens to provide a sustainable and beautiful environment where students can both learn and connect freely with the natural world. This is a critical component that is currently missing on many school grounds, according to Julia Seebach, a CCE parent and co-founder of CCE’s Environmental Enrichment Program (EEP). Ms Seebach has spearheaded the CCE green schoolyard project over the past 4 years. Her passion and drive for this project come from her belief that it is our responsibility to model environmental stewardship and provide students with the opportunity to connect daily with the natural world. Hundreds of studies correlate the therapeutic benefits of time spent in nature with children’s enhanced mental health and well-being. Ms. Seebach believes that in today’s world, accessing this healing source is more important than ever before. She states: “The investments are minimal compared to the benefits. Green schoolyards can be built collaboratively by students and staff, engaged community members and the school district. And shared school grounds will benefit not only the students and staff, but their surrounding neighborhoods.”

Image above: Proposed Green Schoolyard at César Chávez Elementary School in Davis, CA. Design by Patricia Carpenter, Ryan Deering and other community members. More details about CCE’s Environmental Enrichment Program can be found at

As a first step, CCE has planted large areas surrounding their playgrounds and walkways with perennial, drought tolerant, mostly native and pollinator plants. Why is this important? The environmental crisis is changing people’s views of public landscapes. While traditional schools have “ornamental, low maintenance” landscaping that has little environmental or educational meaning, an expertly planned green landscape can support environmental concerns while profoundly enhancing students’ educational experience.

Schools and their adjoining parks occupy large pieces of public land- often the largest open spaces in their neighborhoods. If this land is consciously planted in native plants which provide food and habitat for birds, invertebrates, pollinators and lizards, it can significantly increase the diversity of flora and fauna in the neighborhood. From the point of view of school children, an enriched, diverse environment is educational in many ways. First and most obviously, students enjoy seeing and studying the diverse flora and fauna which emerge. Secondly, students can learn how to steward the world they will inherit.

A green school often consists of intentional landscaping, including edibles, pollinators, drought tolerant plants, native flora, and shade producing trees. It can provide opportunities for students to learn about efficient water use, about composting and recycling their waste, and about producing energy on site using solar panels. Many Davis schools, including CCE, are going beyond school gardens to become system-wide green schools. However, the change-over of ornamental, low maintenance landscapes to greener alternatives involves significant and ongoing coordination between administrators, school maintenance teams and community volunteers. Green landscapes require more maintenance, especially until they are established, and can challenge conventional practices.

CCE and other Davis schools have the potential to become model green schools, led by willing administrators and an expert community of volunteers. As Nate Tauzer, DJUSD’s new garden and environmental coordinator, points out, however, it is important that the district devise equitable programs so that all students, regardless of classroom or school, can experience both garden and environmental education and a climate enhancing green environment. Davis schools have long been leaders in academic achievement. But as César Chávez reminds us, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.”

Lorie Hammond, Ph D, is a Professor Emeritus from the College of Education at CSU Sacramento, where she taught science, art and bilingual education and developed urban school gardens with communities of immigrants and refugees. She is founder and former director of Peregrine School, a garden based, experiential learning school in Davis, California, and authored the book, Growing Whole Children in the Garden, about seasonal garden education.

I would like to give credit to Veronica Dunn, CCE Principal; Julia Pollex, Horticulture teacher at CCE; and Julia Seebach, CCE parent and co-founder of CCE’s Environmental Enrichment Program (EEP), for their cooperation in producing this article.


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