Construction of School Garden Reaps Harvest of Learning

Principal Brad Rumble
Leo Politi Elementary School
Los Angeles, Calif.

As Brad Rumble considered the venue and statistics of Leo Politi Elementary School, he saw little to inspire. Set in the most densely populated part of downtown Los Angeles, the neighborhood has 25,352 people per square mile, and the free or reduced-lunch statistics are equally staggering at nearly 99 percent.

Brad’s mind went back to his own childhood in Northern California, where “if I wasn’t exploring the creek, I was bike-riding in the hills or hiking,” says the avid birdwatcher. “Over the years, I’ve developed this idea that what’s missing for these children is a connection to the natural world.”

Inspiration came through Brad’s connection with the Los Angeles Audubon Society, through which he learned of an $18,000 grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that could help his students create their own native oasis within the confines of their concrete jungle. Brad eyed an unused 5,000-square-foot playground for the garden.

In spring 2009, Brad’s school became the first in Los Angeles County to win the grant, and work began. One community work party turned into a succession of them as parents came back week after week. “It’s interesting how people come together when you weed,” Brad laughs.

Students from an environmental study program at nearby Dorsey High School imparted their knowledge upon gifted students from Leo Politi in a partnership Brad calls “a cross-pollination.” Together they took soil samples and identified native flora that could be planted to restore the patch to its natural state. A Bobcat was brought in to carve out a vernal pool. Finally that November came planting day.

“What I didn’t realize was just how much this would become a living laboratory, how much this would pique the curiosity of these students in so many ways,” Brad shares. “You dig that soil, and you find a worm, and you want to know what happens to that worm in the soil. You want to know what happens when the rain comes, which isn’t that often.”

Learning and literacy have blossomed as a result. Brad turned an unused classroom into a science lab, where students study such phenomena as air currents, food webs, erosion, and pollinators. In addition, a limited-contract teacher funded by donations helps students with nature research in the school’s designated Audubon Room.

“This has built a natural curiosity within, and our faculty here has seized on that curiosity. Birdwatching and the exploration of the natural world give our students a heightened sense of awareness, and that translates over to language arts and reading. The students are much more aware of what they’re observing and what they’re hearing. They want to know more about these things, so they need to go to informational texts to learn about them,” Brad says.

Each day brings new fascinations, such as the tarantula hawk, a brilliantly colored wasp “that drove students to dig into reference guides to learn about this creature. Then they wanted to learn about the tarantula, which is its prey,” according to Brad.

But students aren’t satisfied with merely referring to field guides written by others. They are now writing their own, combining scientific illustration with informational texts, with the help of the limited-contract teacher.

Tying into the nature theme, this year Brad plans to have the students learn about the school’s namesake, children’s book illustrator and author Leo Politi, who won a Caldecott Medal in 1950 for The Song of the Swallows. “There’s a lot of competition for the hearts and minds of our children. It’s important to merchandise reading and to build that love for books,” Brad observes.

The school even has an author-in-residence – Ann Stalcup, a friend and biographer of Leo Politi’s – who volunteers with fourth-graders every Tuesday. Together they read stories about countries the author has visited, and children write about the countries and their customs. “It’s a really powerful thing to these fourth-graders,” Brad says.

The school’s back-to-nature approach has changed the very nature of the community and the families it serves. Brad maximizes that bond with parents by holding parent training sessions in correlation with Leo Politi’s Book Fairs. “I share with them research of genres. I’ll translate into Spanish, and we get into our own discussions of genres. Then parents work in teams at Book Fairs to find examples of the various genres we’ve talked about,” Brad says.

Now Leo Politi Elementary – where many children spend 14 hours a day while parents work multiple jobs – is a place where children are excited to be. “They come bounding to school. The children are so excited to be here,” Brad says.
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