Los Angeles Audubon Youth Education Programs: Here’s Why It’s Worth the Effort…

By Stacey Vigallon, Director of Interpretation

As a Los Angeles Audubon staff member, it’s not unusual to be asked why we don’t focus more on conservation, habitat restoration, and species monitoring? Given the scope of the very immediate problems facing biodiversity, don’t education programs just draw from already limited funding and take time away from addressing important conservation goals? And, hey, don’t kids get all the information they need in school anyway? The short answer is that youth environmental education is an essential tactic needed to address the biodiversity crisis. The long answer encompasses personal beliefs about conservation as well as long-term strategies for achieving conservation goals.

interpreting nature photo oct2013

A student in the first year of the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program teaches her peers about the watershed (January 2009).

I am extremely indebted to the people in my life who helped me connect with nature. As a nature-nerd kid who grew up to study science, I was fortunate to spend my childhood in an agricultural area with abundant open space, with parents who encouraged rock collections, backyard camping, and digging in the dirt. My time spent in front of the TV was highly restricted, while my time reading, drawing, and running around outside was pretty much an unregulated market: laissez-faire access to nature and critical thinking activities. Given these circumstances, it is not particularly surprising that I became an adult who greatly values nature and sees the importance of its conservation. By contrast, kids growing up in Los Angeles reside in one of the most park-poor cities in the country, and most attend schools where very strong emphasis is placed on succeeding on standardized tests as opposed to hands-on outdoor activities. Youth in Los Angeles face serious obstacles that can prevent them from connecting with nature in a meaningful way, from seeing how the science they learn in class relates to the actual world, from gaining an understanding of how social justice and environmental justice often overlap.

How are environmental education programs a good investment for an Audubon chapter? I would counter with a couple quick questions: Do you like birds? Would you like them to be around in the future? This will require actively teaching young people in urban centers how (and why) to care for nature – in both the here-and-now-local-park sense and the abstract concept of nature. People who grow up with the understanding and vision to think outside just themselves and the city they live in are able to think critically about the ramifications of how humans use land locally, nationally, and globally. Understanding what a watershed is, how a candy bar wrapper thrown on the ground in the middle of the city affects wildlife at the beach, having a sense of the cardinal directions without using a GPS system – these are all examples of very basic concepts that can help provide young people with a sense of place and a direct connection to the value of nature in daily life. You don’t have to keep a life list to love birds, and you don’t have to become a biologist to help with conservation. The environmental and social justice movements need compassionate critical thinkers from all professions – teachers, architects, engineers, farmers, fashion designers, filmmakers, park rangers, auto mechanics, solar panel installation technicians.

In terms of a bottom line for conservation, the connections that kids build now to nature and to their communities has the potential to profoundly affect how they vote as adults and how they raise their own kids. Some of the students that have graduated from our education programs ARE now parents. A current mom who was part of the very first class of our Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program told me that, “being in the Eco Club and the Greenhouse Program definitely changed the way I view the world…It made me appreciate more of what this planet has to offer from the smallest bug to the tallest tree. I will continue to teach [my son] all I know in hopes that he will be more aware of what's happening to our planet.” Another high school student described her involvement in one of Los Angeles Audubon’s education programs as “life-changing” after her first year, and her goal is to become a wildlife biologist in the future. And finally, one of our third-year interns clearly embraces the idea that a connection with nature can be seamlessly integrated into careers outside of science saying, “not only do I want to study ecology, but I want to implement ecology in my future business career.”

But what about right now? Do these programs result in ANY direct conservation actions? Based on what we’ve observed in the past several years, the answer is yes. Joyce Realegeno convinced her family to remove their lawn and replace it with native plants. Brian Young was asked by his church to help re-landscape using native plants. Andrea Ascencio, now a student at UC Merced, is integrating things she learned with Los Angeles Audubon into her university’s ecoclub activities. Education program alumni routinely participate in species monitoring and habitat restoration volunteer activities when they’re home on break from college. Dorsey High School is largely responsible for keeping invasive sea rocket at manageable levels at the California Least Tern colony on Venice beach, and for removing pampas grass from a restoration site at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Signs created by elementary school students serve to educate beach-goers about Snowy Plovers at Malibu Lagoon and Least Terns at Venice Beach. And, native birds like the Ash-throated Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, and Western Meadowlark are showing up at the Politi Schoolyard Habitat in the Pico-Union area. These are all small conservation victories worth celebrating. Now just imagine the collective impact of a thousand small victories moving into the future of conservation in Los Angeles.

Below you’ll find a quick run-down of our current youth education programs…

Ballona Wetlands Education Program

Established over 20 years ago through efforts by Los Angeles Audubon, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and Audubon California, the Ballona Wetlands Education Program aims to introduce students in grades 3-5 to the wonders of the last functioning tidal wetland in Los Angeles. Last year 1,967 students from 27 different schools from all over Los Angeles, most of which were underserved inner-city schools, visited the wetlands. Viewing wildlife at the salt marsh, from Great Blue Herons to tiny aquatic invertebrates, is always a high light of the field trip for students.

Kenneth Hahn Education Program

This program was established in the 2009-2010 school year at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in the Baldwin Hills. It aims to compliment the Ballona Wetlands Education Program by introducing students to upland coastal sage scrub habitat within the Ballona Creek Watershed, and its curriculum reach extends to sixth grade. Last year alone, about 1300 students explored the native plant and wildlife garden, observed first-hand the unique geology of the LA Basin, and learned about the importance of greenspace in urban areas for migratory birds.

Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program

After collaborating with the Dorsey High School eco-club in the 2007-2008 school year for a habitat restoration event and a bird count, we established the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program the following year, starting with 12 students. This year, we accepted 65 students into this program. This program pays students from a highly impacted inner-city school to conduct scientific research at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park, develop and implement environmental curriculum for elementary school students, and lead community volunteers in habitat restoration projects. Through these endeavors, students actively engage and improve their communities and gain valuable work experience for their college and professional resumes. Students graduating from this program have gone on to some of the top universities in the country, including Brown University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Williams College. Many students continue to participate in Audubon conservation and education programs after graduation as well.

Science Illustration Program

Serving 40-60 students each year, mostly at the elementary school level, the Science Illustration Program kicked off in 2010 when students created Snowy Plover conservation posters as part of Audubon California’s Share the Shore grant program. Culminating each year in the Conservation Art Show, the Science Illustration program has steadily engaged students in projects that combine conservation and art, producing the Kill Your Lawn comic book, the Field Guide to Politi Elementary School, and nine online galleries of student work. Student illustrations have been featured in Audubon Magazine.

Politi Elementary Schoolyard Habitat

In 2009, Los Angeles Audubon and Politi Elementary School in the Pico-Union neighborhood teamed up to install a native habitat on 6,000 square feet of underutilized school yard, with the help of a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The schoolyard habitat has been essential in engaging students, staff, parents, and the community in hands-on nature activities in a neighborhood largely devoid of open space. On-campus programs have grown organically with the habitat, including lunch-time “field trips” to the habitat for students in first and second grades, as well as the very active Audubon Club, whose students’ frequent visits to the habitat result in bird research projects and conservation-themed poetry. The project was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in April of 2012.

Los Angeles Audubon Summer Camp

This new program was launched during the summer of 2013, with a goal of engaging recent graduates from Politi Elementary who are headed to middle schools throughout Los Angeles. For more details (and photos!) of this program, check out the Interpreting Nature column from the Sept/Oct 2013 issue of the Western Tanager.

Snowy Plover and Least Tern Outreach

Linking public school students to conservation efforts to protect Snowy Plovers and Least Terns has been underway at Los Angeles Audubon since 2007. Students from Dorsey High School’s eco-club just completed their 13th visit to the Least Tern colony this past September, and students from 186th Street Elementary have joined them for the past several school years. Hundreds of public school students have participated in field trips to view Snowy Plovers since 2010, mainly at the protective enclosure at Dockweiler Beach. Thanks to a recent Whale Tail grant in collaboration with Audubon California and San Diego Audubon, hundreds more students will meet a Snowy Plover for the first time this school year as well.

Yes, it costs money to sustain existing programs, to reach out to new parts of the city, to provide bus transportation to highly impacted urban schools, to pay for staff time, volunteer training, and program materials. We are always hunting for new funding opportunities to keep these programs going. Financial support from organizations like Toyota TogetherGreen, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon California, the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, Johnny Mercer Foundation, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, SONY, Southern California Edison, the Whale Tail grant program, an extremely generous donation from an anonymous donor, and small donations from many donors have supported various programs throughout the years. It’s a good investment in the future of conservation.

Originally published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 2 Nov/Dec 2013