Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Campus Space Reimagined? Naturally.

December 03, 2013

Leo Politi Elementary is just a mile west of downtown Los Angeles as the crow flies, and occupies eight acres along bustling Olympic Boulevard, just two blocks from an even busier north-south artery, Vermont Avenue. Pico-Union is one of the city’s most densely populated and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Crowded buildings, crowded streets—and nowhere for kids to roam. Surrounded by concrete and asphalt, I recognized nature’s potential to capture the imagination of inner-city students. 

 To better understand the symbiotic relationship of the snapdragon and the hummingbird, your best source just may be a Leo Politi fourth-grader.So in early 2009 when Los Angeles Audubon Society approached me to create a native California habitat on the campus of Leo Politi Elementary, I jumped at the chance. Nearly all its eight acres were covered with buildings or asphalt. But behind the library was a sprawling, sloping lawn which, unbelievably, was never used. Could this be restored to what California once was? 

L.A. Audubon and Leo Politi were among the first in southern California to receive a Schoolyard Habit Restoration Program grant through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In June of 2009, L.A. Audubon Greenhouse Program students from Dorsey High came to teach our students how to determine the soil type and discuss where in the watershed our patch was located to select native trees and plants accordingly. As our native plants began to grow strong in the right soil, these Dorsey High students in urban L.A. flourished, with college going rates far beyond the district average.

As the Grand Opening neared, families bonded with one another and with the land. Together, we planted native species. Coastal oaks, Bladderpod, Buckwheat, Saltbush, and native rushes all found a home alongside wild California roses and creeping wild rye.

It was as if the native insects were holding on for years, waiting for their new home. With the insects came the birds. At any given time, 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. All this just down the street from the LA Lakers’ home. 

Observing and recording all this activity are the students. They’re curious, they’re talkative. Field guides and binoculars in hand, they go into the habitat to discover what’s new and are never disappointed. To better understand the symbiotic relationship of the snapdragon and the hummingbird, your best source just may be a Leo Politi fourth-grader. While they’re at it, they’ll tell you about the life cycle of that swallowtail which just flew by, or when the Yellow-rumped Warblers should return from parts north. 

When you’re out birding, you’re talking—and using academic language. You’re comparing and contrasting, describing and detailing, accessing prior knowledge and quantifying. Getting closer to the birds brought us closer to understanding the aim of the Common Core State Standards; the notion of close reading was what we were doing, carefully examining and questioning complex things that previously we had quickly passed by. After school, the Audubon Room hosts Science Illustration classes, where students do what was done for centuries before the advent of photography, they use art to record nature. 

With the birds came the families. Children explore the habitat long after the bell rings as parents let their minds roam along the rushes after long day’s work, or build friendships under the gentle shade of the oaks. Meanwhile, Science scores have gone from 9% proficient, 0% advanced in 2009 to a healthy average of 47% proficient/advanced ever since. In 2005, 11 were identified as Gifted, yet as of May 2013, 95 were in the Gifted program, more than 10% of the school. 

Until 21st century cities plan for open space in their most crowded neighborhoods, perhaps the school campus can fill this need. Here in the shadow of skyscrapers, a patch of campus captured the imagination of students and brought a community outside and together. For any school, the investment is small, yet the natural world’s lessons are infinite. 

Our habitat is a living laboratory.  As we explore, I join the students in all of their wonderings, and add one more:  Shouldn’t every school have a native habitat?  After all, every campus is rich with natural history.

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