COLUMN ONE: At an urban L.A. school, nature grows — and test scores too –

13/05/2012 9:09
COLUMN ONE: At an urban L.A. school, nature grows — and test scores too –

Excerpts below -the full article can be read from the link above 

At an L.A. school, attracting naturally

“Biological diversity does not come easily near the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Hoover Street.
The neighborhood just west of downtown is one of the most crowded in Los Angeles County, with 25,352 people per square mile. It’s chock-full of buildings and has lots of pavement, little landscaping and many economically disadvantaged families.

In that setting, Leo Politi Elementary School wanted only to make a dreary corner of campus more inviting to its 817 students. Workers ripped out 5,000 square feet of concrete and Bermuda grass three years ago and planted native flora. What happened next was unforeseen. It was remarkable.

The plants attracted insects, which attracted birds, which attracted students, who, fascinated by the nature unfolding before them, learned so much that their test scores in science rose sixfold. In the words of Leo Politi’s delighted principal, Brad Rumble, “We’ve gone from the basement to the penthouse in science test scores.”

….Three years ago, the school’s standardized test scores in science for fifth-graders showed that 9% were proficient and none were advanced. Last spring, 53% of fifth-graders tested as proficient or advanced.

…..In partnership with Los Angeles Audubon, Leo Politi in 2008 became one of the first elementary schools in the city to apply for and win “schoolyard habitat” and partner’s grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With $18,000 from the agency, and volunteer assistance from environmental students at Dorsey High School, Leo Politi removed the concrete and grass from the forlorn corner of campus. Dorsey students wielded rakes and shovels and helped select and plant bushes, flowers and trees, including six live oaks that now shade a slope Rumble calls “our oak highlands.”

Nature responded quickly to the clumps of rye grass, owl’s clover and waist-high thickets of white sage and wildflowers: California poppies, California wild roses, tidytips and island snapdragons.

“First to arrive were insects — lady beetles, butterflies and dragonflies — almost as if they were lying in wait,” Rumble said. “They were followed by birds that feed on them.” At that point, students were hooked. “Questions about why some birds flocked to one plant and not another led to discussions about soil composition and water cycles, weather patterns and seasons, avian migration and the tilt of the Earth in its orbit around the sun,” Rumble said.

……To education experts, the concept of project-based learning is nothing new. “If students are actively engaged in a real-world project — whether it be working on a car engine, designing a dress or cultivating a garden — it’s going to turbo-charge classroom curriculum,” said Guilbert Hentschke, a professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education. “Most educators intuitively or professionally understand this,” Hentschke added. “And most would love to do it, but they don’t always have the time, money, staff or space.”

…….The benefits are much greater than pure science, said Robert Jeffers, lead arts and humanities teacher at Dorsey and Los Angeles County teacher of the year in 2010.

At Leo Politi, the garden has “instilled a profound sense of responsibility and awareness of nature,” Jeffers said. “Now these kids can tell the difference between a crow and a raven, which requires cognitive skills of understanding subtleties and nuances important throughout life.”

…..The garden and Rhieman’s class are springboards for older students who receive weekly after-school workshop lessons in science illustration taught by Stacey Vigallon, director of interpretation for L.A. Audubon.
That five-week class concluded with students learning to mix up to 10 shades of green with colored pencils. Among them was Jesus Olvera, 11, who labored over a rendering of a burrowing owl. No sooner did he complete a meticulous sketch of the bird’s eyes than he erased it and started over.

……..Since the garden was planted, students have documented and illustrated more than 25 species of birds, including the meadowlark that dropped in around Thanksgiving, an ash-throated flycatcher that visits each autumn and a white-crowned sparrow spotted last Sunday.”
Tess Michaels