Planting the Seeds of Change (Literally)

A Los Angeles principal empowers students by helping them bring nature back to their school grounds.

Brad Rumble

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Climate change. Declining biodiversity. Storm runoff. The urban heat island effect. Nature deficit. The environmental challenges facing us today can seem overwhelming. Where to start? Perhaps just outside the classroom door.

For nearly two decades, I’ve worked as a public school educator less than two miles from the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. In my early days in the profession, I often thought about my students’ day-to-day grind. Most woke up in small apartments in large concrete buildings. They walked on sidewalks along major streets like Olympic Boulevard or Wilshire Boulevard, passing a continuous string of other large concrete buildings. They spent the day inside their school’s concrete building or perhaps a bungalow classroom and played on a huge expanse of asphalt during recess. After school, they made the reverse trek home. The next morning, they did this all over again.

Certainly they deserved better. They deserved opportunities to get to know the wonders of nature right in their own community instead of having to board a bus for a once-a-year field trip to a far-off place.

In 2008, as a first-year principal at Leo Politi Elementary School in the Pico-Union neighborhood of central Los Angeles, I knew I couldn’t solve the city’s long history of poor urban planning, which had resulted in few outdoor public spaces for residents to enjoy. But I also knew that as principals, we are often called on to be change agents on our campuses. I believed that a change was necessary to increase my urban students’ access to nature on campus because children yearn to understand the wonders of nature and to roam safely outdoors. If the 20th century was an era of accelerated school construction as neighborhoods expanded, certainly the 21st century can be an era of making school campuses more responsive to students’ basic needs.

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The schoolyard restoration begins in October 2009. Landscape ecologist Margot Griswold of the Los Angeles Audubon Society tells students, "The soil is gold." PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAD RUMBLE

Turning Back the Clock

The work began in 2008, when I partnered with the Los Angeles Audubon Society and applied for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Restoration Program. Los Angeles Audubon already had a robust education program for high school students, which included a native plant greenhouse program in southwest L.A. Now, with Leo Politi Elementary approved to join the habitat restoration program, the high school students from the Los Angeles Audubon program would serve as "restoration leaders" and help our elementary school community restore more than 5,000 square feet of underused space on our campus. The goal was to turn the area into what it might have looked like 600 years ago.

"Every school campus, no matter how urban, has its own natural history just waiting to be reclaimed and observed."

Working alongside a biologist and restoration ecologist, the high school and elementary students discovered that our campus was part of the Ballona Creek Watershed, which extends from high in the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. They learned that the soil was clay and that our neighborhood was once coastal sage scrub. All of these findings influenced the students’ selection of plants for the space. During afternoons when the high school and elementary students worked together, they learned about water supply and climate and completed team-building exercises, such as species identification games.

On Saturday, November 7, 2009, the high school students led more than 250 members of the Leo Politi community in converting what was once concrete and dry Bermuda grass into a native California habitat. The event brought our school community closer together, and we came to see that Los Angeles isn’t such a big city after all.

The plants thrived in their new environs. Within a month or two, the native insects and birds had found their way to the space. Instead of reading about metamorphosis, students found all stages of a lady beetle’s life cycle right there on a Cleveland sage. Students compared and contrasted the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The students held an annual contest to predict the arrival date of the yellow-rumped warbler. After-school science illustration classes felt more like college. In fact, when a group of our birding students visited an ornithologist’s lecture at UCLA, they immediately took out their notepads to jot down facts, and they were the first to raise their hands during a question-and-answer segment. We held a Science + Art Conservation Celebration each spring; classes created enormous banners highlighting the nature found on campus. "House Finches in the House!" proclaimed one banner, with a large painting of the nest the class had found tucked behind a fire alarm bell.

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"As students became experts in local flora and fauna, they realized they could be experts in other subjects, too."

Our science scores on state tests shot up as students made connections between what they observed and the standards-based concepts they studied. In the spring of 2009 (before we began our work), only 9 percent of Leo Politi’s 5th graders scored proficient on the state science assessment, and not one child scored advanced. By 2012, 20 percent scored proficient and 26 percent scored advanced. As students became experts in local flora and fauna, they realized that they could be experts in other subjects, too.

There were other benefits as well. In bringing nature onto our campus, we created avenues for students and parents to get to know one another at habitat-based work parties and celebrations. The social and emotional wellbeing of students and staff members—the principal included—was enhanced by the presence of the restored natural world just outside our doors. It’s not lost on me that in the five years I served on that campus alongside the habitat, there were no student suspensions and no habitat-related safety incidents.

Another Change Journey

After almost a decade as assistant principal and then principal of Leo Politi Elementary, I knew it was time for a new challenge. I also wanted to know whether the habitat work could be sustained beyond a birder principal’s presence there. And could I bring this work onto a new campus?

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In May 2015, students at Esperanza Elementary overlook a section of their schoolyard that will become a natural habitat. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAD RUMBLE

In 2014, I began a new principalship at Esperanza Elementary, located a mile closer to downtown Los Angeles. I opted to begin the nature-related work by engaging the 3rd grade teachers in an exploration of two duck species found in nearby MacArthur Park. The teachers ran with the idea, creating a six-week integrated unit involving science, geography, and nonfiction literacy. The students became experts on the resident dabbling ducks, called mallards, and the migratory diving ducks, called ring-necked ducks. We visited the park with binoculars three times during the school year, studying the changing numbers of both species.

"Document, document, document. Change shows up in the darnedest ways. Memorialize as much of it as you can."

When Esperanza teamed up with Los Angeles Audubon and the high school restoration leaders for its own Schoolyard Habitat Restoration Program work in 2016, the students already had foundational knowledge about the nature around them. As a result, they knew what would be possible when we removed the asphalt and created a native habitat on 4,700 square feet of the campus. The restoration of the land began last fall with the planting of a California wildflower mix. Soon after, the restoration leaders led our families in planting native shrubs and trees, and we laid bark paths through the habitat.

Already this school community has recorded 41 species of birds. Each week, the students add their own natural history observations to an ever-changing bulletin board. A group of students is writing a nonfiction book about the burrowing owl, which overwintered in our courtyard. My work at both schools has shown that every school campus, no matter how urban, has its own natural history just waiting to be reclaimed and observed.

Lessons On Leading Change

Whether your passion is nature or numbers or something in between, some of the lessons I’ve learned in my work may have implications for the change journey at your school.

  • Share the vision. Where do you see the need for change? No doubt there are others on your campus and in your community who see the same need. Begin to articulate your vision with others. However, avoid sweeping vision statements that can overwhelm colleagues when new initiatives are introduced. Instead, find commonality with them and collaborate on logical next steps. Often this work is iterative.

  • Build on what’s already working. If others in your community have already taken on the work toward the change you envision, find out how you can connect with them. Like-minded individuals (in our case, the Los Angeles Audubon Society) often seek others to partner with, but they need to know you’re out there.

  • Look for research that supports your work. Sometimes one’s passion for change can appear to be subjective, but there may be solid research to support your vision. Share this research with your community to validate the work you’re about to undertake, especially among those who may not initially understand it.

  • Take others with you on the journey. When I began this work in 2008, I wanted to make sure my superiors and stakeholders were onboard. I never wanted to be ahead of them. I invited my immediate supervisor and a representative from the district’s facilities department to our campus to illustrate the need for this project and to answer their questions.

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I also provided opportunities for teachers, students, and parents to be part of the work. When decisions needed to be made (for example, "Where should we place the fence?"), I sought advice from those around me to build trust and ownership. And I frequently remind stakeholders, "This habitat belongs to you."

  • Not everyone will see what you see. And that’s OK. After all, if everyone shared your passion for change, it’s likely the change would have happened already. Find ways to connect with those who are reluctant to jump onboard. Humor can be a wonderful way to lower the tension. "I’m at it again," I’ll say with a laugh, which often leads to conversations about why we’re doing this work.

  • Document, document, document. Change shows up in the darnedest ways. Memorialize as much of it as you can. A student might say something that indicates your methods are working, or a parent might suggest a project to build on your change. A teacher might say, "You’ve got to come over and see what we’re doing!" Document it all. And, of course, keep an eye on more formal data. How is your work improving outcomes like student attendance, academic achievement, parent participation, and school culture?

  • Celebrate. As you and your stakeholders build momentum, take time to celebrate your successes. Celebration is rewarding for those who worked alongside you; it communicates the good news to others and helps move the work forward. We routinely commended our community’s work with events like the Science + Art Conservation Celebration and the annual yellow-rumped warbler arrival contest.

  • Be prepared for the work to lead you to unexpected places. A change project may seem linear at first. Yet the work you take on can lead you to unexpected new challenges—and rewards. This is, in fact, one of the best reasons to begin. When I started out as a brand new teacher 26 years ago not far from here, I never could have predicted that anything but concrete would be possible for a campus in these parts. Yet here on my campus in the heart of Los Angeles, I start my day hearing students’ detailed firsthand accounts of dragonflies and warblers. They see their surroundings in a whole new way, and so do I.