Leo Politi Elementary Native Schoolyard Habitat

by Brad Rumble

Leo Politi Elementary is 1.3 miles west of the Staples Center as the crow flies, and when I arrived there as Assistant Principal in July, 2005 I was happy to see one overhead: a native species instead of the House Sparrows, European Starlings and Rock Doves which ruled the campus. In fact, I am sure the two decades I’d spent working in urban schools greatly informed my late calling to birding. Surrounded by concrete and asphalt, I developed an appreciation for untamed places which support a rich variety of species, and I recognized nature’s potential to capture the imagination of inner-city students... 

So in early 2009 when Mary Loquvam, then-Executive Director of Los Angeles Audubon, approached me about collaborating on a project to create a native California habitat on the campus of Leo Politi Elementary, I jumped at the chance. By then I had moved into the Principal’s chair and knew every corner of the campus. Nearly all of its eight acres were covered with buildings or asphalt.  But behind the library was a sprawling, sloping lawn which, hard to believe, was never used.  A concrete slab had been laid on part of it years earlier—the foundation for a reading garden which never came to be.  Could this patch be restored to what California once was?

L.A. Audubon and Leo Politi were the first in southern California to receive the Schoolyard Habitation Restoration Program through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  By June 2009 the sprinklers were shut off and the concrete slab was removed.  The base of a gentle slope was carved out even more to make way for a vernal pool.  L.A. Audubon Greenhouse Program students from Dorsey High came over to teach our students how to determine the soil type and to discuss where in the watershed our patch was located.  They concluded we were dealing with clay soil in a Coastal Sage Scrub section of the coastal plain, and this in turn influenced our selection of native trees and plants.

As the November 7, 2009 Grand Opening neared, our work parties became real parties.  Families bonded with one another and with the land.  Along the way we all gained a deep appreciation for the tenacity of Bermuda grass—and the scientific wisdom of L.A. Audubon Vice President Margot Griswold.  On the big day the nearly 6,000 square foot planting space was divided into quadrants with a Dorsey student in charge of each.  Six coastal live oaks were planted at the top of the slope—our new Oak Highlands.  Along the higher elevation we planted bladderpod, Mexican flannelbush and salt bush, while down in the vernal pool area, the thirstier native rushes found their new home alongside wild California roses and creeping wild rye.  Where the concrete slab had lingered now grew toyon, goldenbush, island snapdragon and three species of native sage.  A month later we returned for an evening planting party, this time to spread native wildflower seeds, and by March, 2010 the vernal pool area was carpeted with Owl’s Clover, Tidy Tips and Goldfields.  

The diverse native species we’d hoped for didn’t waste time in finding us, starting with the insects.  Native lady beetles, sulphurs, blues, solitary bees and dragonflies were the first to arrive. It’s as if they had been holding on all these years, just waiting for us.  One afternoon a group of students stood silently for twenty minutes observing two enormous beetles circling an oak.  With the insects came the birds.  At times more than two dozen Mourning Doves work the ground, attracting the attention of several American Kestrels and a Cooper’s Hawk.  The House Finch, a bellwether species, is now seen in great numbers.  Mockingbirds, Black Phoebes and Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds have taken residence while a Say’s Phoebe and several Western Scrub Jays stop by.  An Ash-throated Flycatcher has visited each early autumn, and this November saw a Western Meadowlark and White-crowned Sparrow, just one week apart.  

Meanwhile, Science scores at Leo Politi have gone from among the lowest to among the highest in the area.  Our patch is a living laboratory.  We encounter a worm as we dig and want to know about its world.  Look up.  What is the role of those pollinators on the Penstemon?  Above us, a burst of Mourning Doves take flight.  Yet the Black Phoebe is nearly always alone.  Why?  How much rain will we receive this year?  Where does that rain come from?  And how does the earth’s tilt affect the seasons?  As we explore our patch, I join the students in all of these wonderings, and one more:  Shouldn’t every school have a native habitat?

Published Western Tanager Vol.78 No. 4, March/April 2012