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Birders surveying new habitat. | Photo by Brad Rumble

A New Schoolyard Habitat at Esperanza Elementary School

By Margot Griswold, President, Los Angeles Audubon Society

Los Angeles Audubon Society (LAAS ) has embarked on our second schoolyard habitat, a collaboration at Esperanza Elementary School. This new Schoolyard Habitat is based on our success at Leo Politi Elementary School. We used our experience to build an ecologically appropriate outdoor learning hub at Esperanza Elementary, a Title 1 school, located along Wilshire Blvd near MacArthur Park. There are 773 students attending grades K-Fifth.

In 2009, LAAS and Leo Politi Elementary School, another Title I school near downtown Los Angeles, collaborated with US Fish and Wildlife Service to install a native habitat on 6,000 square feet of under-utilized schoolyard. This collaboration was first schoolyard habitat project in downtown Los Angeles to receive a grant. LAAS, worked successfully with students, parents, and teachers to replace an under-utilized area of schoolyard at Leo Politi Elementary with an outdoor learning area now filled with native plants, insects, and birds.

We transformed the schoolyard habitat concept at Leo Politi by having our high school Restoration Leaders from the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program create and teach curricula using the Politi habitat. This innovation, using intergenerational learning, is an important part of our success in fostering stewardship with both age groups and within the urban core of Los Angeles. We are growing environmental stewards who understand the importance of urban ecology. We call our intergenerational learning the ʻSchool-shedʼ, and it links all of our environmental education programs. Our ‘School-shed’ is located within the Ballona Creek Watershed of Los Angeles.

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MAP: Schools within Ballona Creek Watershed

While the Politi habitat is self-sufficient now, LAAS continues to work with our Restoration Leaders, sponsoring an annual workday where our students work with parents and Politi students to trim and spruce up the native plants. The schoolyard habitat continues to be essential in engaging students, teachers, and community in hands-on nature activities in a neighborhood largely devoid of parks. LAAS staff also engage students each fall and spring in an after-school science illustration program, culminating in a Science+Art evening program that engages the whole school with performances, student exhibits, and science games.

Similarly, the overall goal of Esperanza Schoolyard Habitat project is to create a natural habitat within an urban school-yard that will serve as an outdoor classroom, filled with native plants, insects, pollinators, lizards and birds, that teachers and students will observe and study to enhance their classroom/textbook experience.

In 2015, LAAS worked with Esperanza principal Brad Rumble and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to identify a 5,2227 square foot area of the schoolyard in the southwest corner that was underused. LAUSD has contributed to the schoolyard habitat project with the removal of asphalt from the site, as well as safety soil testing. While the soil was being testing, LAAS undertook to seed the site with native erosion control species in December, 2015 in advance of the potential el Niño rains. Pathways were installed in October 2016 and planting and seeding was accomplished in early November 2016.

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Esperanza planting day, Nov. 12, 2016 | Photo by Carol Babeli

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Esperanza planting day, Dec. 16, 2016 | Photo by Carol Babeli

Our Restoration Leaders began developing curricula this past summer and engaged with Esperanza students from the beginning of the process. Restoration Leaders are focusing the currcula on urban water management and water conservation based on the location and slight slope of the habitat area. We used the slight slope of the site to capture runoff from the adjacent hardscape in a series of native plant bioswales.

The Esperanza habitat will be evaluated and measured over time factoring plant & habitat development, growth, species count, etc. The schoolyard habitat program is directly tied to the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Restoration Leaders program, so curricula development, student mentoring, and data tracking development of the habitat will be ongoing. Under the Restoration Leadersʼ mentorship, Esperanza students will create a record of work to be shared year to year. It is important to note that one of our current Restoration Leaders became interested in ecology as a 3rd grader at Leo Politi Elementary. As a high school student, he applied to the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program based on his earlier experiences. He is being mentored by former Restoration Leaders who are now LAAS staff, having returned to Los Angeles after college. We are very fortunate to have home-grown urban ecologists working in our education and conservation programs.

LAAS will track program success by documenting plant establishment and resiliency, based on photo documentation of the site and annual maintenance hours. This metric is considered successful when maintenance is only required once per year with a parents/students workday. Our first school-yard habitat reached this metric within year 5. Based on native habitat restoration timelines, five years is the earliest that most sites can be considered established and resilient.

We will also track the number of curricula developed by Restoration Leaders based on state science education standards, Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards to teach elementary school students in the habitat. We have established that between 2 – 4 new curricula modules can be developed and implemented each year.

We rely on the school administration to provide the proficiency levels on the State science test scores (measured at fifth grade level) that can be an indirect indication of success of a school-yard habitat. The science test scores at Leo Politi Elementary were at 9% in 2009, prior to the school-yard habitat implementation, and since implementation the scores showed a three year running average at 50% proficient.

UCLAʼs Philanthropy as Civic Engagement class provided funding for our Restoration Leaders and staff to work with teachers, students and parents to design and initiate the creation of the habitat, and to develop specific curricula designed especially for the habitat as it is created and develops. A grant from US Fish and Wildlife Service provided funding for materials, including pathway boarders and mulch, plants, and the temporary irrigation system.

Update: On November 12, 2016, our high school Restoration Leaders, working with Principal Rumble, brought together students, parents and community to complete the installation of native plants at the new schoolyard habitat at Esperanza. Just weeks later, an Esperanza Elementary student spotted a Burrowing Owl examining the new habitat! Creating habitat for wildlife and utilizing that space for experiential learning is what our schoolyard habitat program is all about!


Burrowing Owl at Esperanza Elementary School | Photo by Brad Rumble

Read more about the Esperanza owl in the SoCal Wild article by Brenda Rees:http://www.socalwild.com/2016/12/burrowing-owl-delights-students-staff-at-urban-school/1816/