Terence Clarke

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The Green Schoolyard

Photo: Ted Kipping. Used with permission.

Photo: Ted Kipping. Used with permission.

In San Francisco, a child pulls a carrot from the ground. Thus the result of the kind of education that may save the world.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.


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Because of drastically reduced government investment, the prestige that should be enjoyed by public primary schools has been humbled by their physical surroundings. The use of asphalt in the outdoor facilities is the usual. Perhaps at one time, your neighborhood school had a lot of trees and other greenery on its property. But such things need sustained care, and that care requires a constant flow of funds, while asphalt is more or less a one-time fix. Given the reduced level of support by so many state legislatures, scarce government monies that could be used for a school’s outdoor environment – and the teaching of science – are shunted away to other things. This results in learning facilities that often resemble the cellblocks at Guantanamo.

This need not be so, if Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle have anything to say about it.

When her kids were little, San Francisco’s Bucklin-Sporer wished to change the environment on the grounds of their school.

“It was a very direct experience. My children were in a public school near our home…Alice Fong Yu…a Chinese immersion school. It was 1997, and my youngest was 5. The school was new. A wonderful place, really, except it had a schoolyard that was a single blank piece of asphalt, edge to edge, surrounded by a cyclone fence.” She describes the pupils as running around like caged animals. There was ample room for what Bucklin-Sporer calls “the alpha kids” to play as strenuously as they wished. But the play structure, intended for climbing, swinging and other full-body exercise, was a dismal construction with a single slide – made of plastic – and numerous faculty monitors forcing the kids to get in line, to go up the structure in one direction and to come down in another. “Even the kindergarteners were tired of this routine after about 15 minutes.”

Despite the hardtop surface and what Bucklin-Sporer describes as the “Macdonald’s-like” play structure, was this playground otherwise a nice place? “There were benches along the cyclone fence or backed up against the building, and you’d see all these kids, many, many of them, sitting shoulder to shoulder.” Bucklin-Sporer thought that giving children the opportunity to interact face-to-face should be one of the important tasks of fruitful social development, and that side-by-side regimentation was the very antithesis of that. “A little like chickens in a roost,” she says.

One of the things that Bucklin-Sporer also noticed when she saw this arrangement was ”a strange empty lot” just beyond the school grounds, from which a large sand dune arose. The lot was not being used for anything, and there are so few such empty plots of land in San Francisco that this one provided her with the kernel of an idea. “It was obviously being cared for by someone,” she says. A few oak trees and some Italian stone pines had been planted. There were eucalyptus trees as well, and Bucklin-Sporer met a woman from the San Francisco Zoo one day, collecting leaves from these trees to feed the koalas at the zoo. “I’d even see meadowlarks up there…and who sees meadowlarks in the middle of a big city?”

Sadly, the dune was a repository of dead cats as well, of old batteries, rusted car doors and other industrial detritus left there by thoughtless citizens. Bucklin-Sporer nonetheless realized what a gem this sand dune could become, were there to be a garden on it. Best of all, she learned that the lot was owned by the school district. “The place had tremendous potential. It was half a city block in size, and there was even a water faucet up there.” The Alice Fong Yu pupils would participate. In fact, with proper guidance, they could be the ones building the garden. Not only would the garden soften the experience of being outside during school hours; it would also be a most natural and appropriate venue for the study of science.

Bucklin-Sporer asked the school principal – “a very forward-thinking woman named Liana Szeto, an unusual blend of steely resolve and openness to new ideas” – if it would be possible to start “a little project up there”, as she put it. She thought she would be able to get the parent association at the school to donate some money toward the making of such a garden…she figured she would need about 500 dollars. “We would build a funky little chicken wire fence to protect it. We’d build some raised beds and fill them with dirt for planting. Have a couple parent workdays…you know, parents and kids pushing wheelbarrows around, mulching stuff.”

How long did it take? “No time flat.”

This was a small project intended for use only by the pupils of Alice Fong Yu. At this point, it was by no means clear what educational purpose the garden would ultimately serve. “As we had not engaged in any planning (who knew?) there was no vision on how the new garden was going to be used. There was no notion of the teachers’ using the garden for teaching themselves.” But right away, the output of vegetables, fruits and other green items from the garden was phenomenal. “So much food!” Bucklin-Sporer says. ”Greens. Root vegetables. Lettuce. Carrots. Some of these pupils had never seen a carrot in the ground before. They were amazed.”

In these early moments, the garden was entirely extra-curricular. But Bucklin-Sporer realized that the two endeavors – classroom lessons and the garden – could be aligned with each other, for the greater benefit of the students themselves and their education in science.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.


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Once having constructed the garden at Alice Fong Yu, a big surprise for Bucklin-Sporer came with the support of the teachers. Although they may not have realized initially how much of the science curriculum could be taught in a garden, they recognized the enthusiasm for the garden exhibited by their pupils. “They had great forbearance, and eventually they recognized the potential for hands-on science. We loved our teachers.” Because it was a Chinese-immersion school, most of the teachers were Chinese, although the students came from many ethnic backgrounds. The teachers were very dedicated professionals, and even the care with which they dressed for work was impressive. “The women would wear high-heels even up in the garden. (Laughter) I would kid them about aerating the soil.”

With all this, Bucklin-Sporer still was not prepared for the level of community that the garden provided to the pupils, teachers and parents alike. The garden became the venue for end-of-the-year school parties, school music events and other presentations. It was, she says, a golden time and a great deal of fun.

But early on, the garden was not an integral part of the science curriculum, and the principal, Liana Szeto, though enthused, wished to know what else could be done with it. “I wanted something that would affect the science teaching curriculum directly,” Bucklin-Sporer explains. “I’m not a teacher though, and I didn’t know how to do it.” So she began working with the teachers at the school. She studied what was being done in the classroom. “I have a pretty good understanding of rudimentary botany, for example, natural history…the various kinds of science that are being taught at the primary level. I began thinking of all that and how it could be applied to the garden itself.”

Did the teachers mind being asked about what they were teaching? “Not at all. In fact they loved it, and embraced the idea of having a partner to teach the kids science. At that time, I was that partner, and the teachers were quite willing to venture out into the garden with me, and to use it as an outdoor classroom.”

Bucklin-Sporer also knew that the idea of a garden on school grounds had ample precedent. The history of gardens especially in rural American schools in the 19th century is a rich one. World War II’s Victory gardens provided significant examples of what can be done by individual citizens on a local level. She was also aware of other school gardens here and there in San Francisco schools.

“Five or six of them. So I began reaching out to those schools. We had a little conference. We tried getting something bigger going. But at that time, there just wasn’t the enthusiasm, particularly among the teachers at other schools. There were 75 primary schools in the San Francisco system, but not many of their teachers were gardeners themselves. So, system-wide, not much was happening.”

But indeed two series of events took place at that time to mark a real and positive advance.

“A little organization called the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance was forming. It had started as the board of the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, a public school in San Francisco’s Marina district. Nan McGuire, a local community advocate, was the head of the board at the time, and had spearheaded their effort to do a big renovation of their playground space, from the worst cracked asphalt nightmare to a lush and very beautiful garden. It was done entirely with privately raised money and with a very dynamic principal named Lynne Juarez. It was beautiful, but it cost $400,000, and once it was in place and grandly successful, the board asked, ‘OK, that’s fine, but what do we do now?’”

It was then, in 2003, that Bucklin-Sporer and the Tule Elk Park board learned about Proposition A. Basically intended to upgrade the physical plants of the primary schools, to fundamentally improve access for physically challenged students, to modernize retrograde structures and so on, the proposition would soon be on the San Francisco ballot. With others from the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, Bucklin-Sporer began speaking with members of the San Francisco Unified School District about the proposition, asking whether some of the Prop. A monies could possibly be set aside for the greening of primary schools. They argued that, as long as asphalt was being dug up to be replaced with more friendly access for those who needed it and a more humane environment for all students, why not provide some real greenery?

“They were interested, but they had no idea really what a green schoolyard was.”

Then began the effort, over several months, to teach the school board about the concept. Nan McGuire, Bucklin-Sporer and a Berkeley writer named Sharon Danks, among others, began tirelessly attending school board meetings. (Danks is the author of Asphalt to Eco-systems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and a thorough-going advocate of schoolyard greening.) They explained that changing a school playground into a greened schoolyard involved digging up some of the asphalt on the school grounds to expose the earth, planting that area, providing a soft-scape rather than a hard one, sometimes building wooden beds for food crops, planting native borders, installing bird baths, planting trees. Everything, in other words, that would make the schoolyard a far more livable place.

The board liked what it saw, and told the green schoolyard people that indeed there would be money in the bond to be used for such projects, although it would be a miniscule amount, less than 1% of the monies that would be raised overall. And of course, as with all such bond measures, there was a big “if”: the bond had to be passed by the voters.

Basically, though, this was good news to the green schoolyard people, even though the funds were to represent so small a percentage of the total. The tiny piece of the pie was at first dismaying to them…until they learned that the less-than-1% would be about 5 million dollars.

Proposition A passed. It would take three years for the greening of multiple schoolyards to get underway. Since then, two more school bond propositions have been placed on the ballot (one in 2006, the other in 2011) and both have passed. The same less-than-1% formula has applied in those bonds, just as small a percentage as previously. But taken altogether, the three propositions amounted to 14 million dollars for greening.

“We were amazed,” Bucklin-Sporer says. “It was enough money for us to fulfill a dream, of putting gardens in every San Francisco public primary school.”

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.


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It was at this point that Arden Bucklin-Sporer met a young woman who was applying for a position at Alice Fong Yu as a garden educator, whose name was Rachel Pringle.

“I had recently moved to California, for an internship with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy,” Pringle says, “and a friend of mine had told me that she had heard of a paid part-time position opening up at a school in San Francisco.”

Pringle already had the idea of greening in her blood, having grown up on a farm on the east coast. Her youth in the outdoors provided some of the most formative moments in her life: the farm itself, summer camp, traveling with her parents, camping in the mountains. “I got a masters degree in conservation biology from the University of Pennsylvania. I had realized that environmental education could potentially have a great deal of influence in the schools. It could be powerful.”

Pringle’s friend told her that the contact at Alice Fong Yu was a woman named Arden Bucklin-Sporer. For Pringle, the job sounded like the perfect mix for her interests in biology, conservation, agriculture, farming and environmental work…all things with which she had grown up and that had fueled her entire education.

She got the job, and became the new garden educator at Alice Fong Yu.

Meanwhile, Bucklin-Sporer left Alice Fong Yu, to found and head a new organization called Preparing the Ground, which brought together the growing number of garden educators from around the district to share ideas and best practices, as well as to inform the district about how to manage the growing number of gardens. Eventually, Preparing the Ground and San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (SFGSA) merged under the Alliance’s name, and Bucklin-Sporer was its first Executive Director.

Pringle stayed at Alice Fong Yu school for four years. But she wished to learn about non-profit organizations as well, and how they are run. She wanted to foster her own broader professional skills. “I knew that the garden concept at Alice Fong Yu could work for one school. But I wanted to see if it could work for many schools.”

Pringle was Bucklin-Sporer’s first hire at San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, as a program manager. It was a desk job in education, rather than what Bucklin-Sporer calls “the boots-on-the-ground idea” that is the norm in green schoolyard education. But it was an important desk job because of what was to come.

After the final Prop A bond was passed in 2011, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance realized that the work of designing and creating green schoolyards was actually finished. They had succeeded in that primary task. But now there was an even more compelling one. They wished to activate those new schoolyards as actual outdoor classrooms.

In 2012, SFGSA became an independent non-profit organization called Education Outside. Committed to advancing the teaching of science outdoors in public schools, it is this organization that, hand in hand with the San Francisco Unified School District and its teachers, allies the school gardens with the standards-based science curriculum mandated by the state of California. Bucklin-Sporer remembers how, in the earliest efforts of the Green Schoolyard Alliance, they were told by teachers that they would welcome a garden in their schools, but not if they had to maintain the garden themselves. There were few active gardeners among the teachers. They would need help, they said.

Starting in 2007 with a staff of two (Bucklin-Sporer as Executive Director and Pringle as Program Manager) the organization now employs 35 people, and its signature program is The Corps for Education Outside.

“Post-bond arrangements had to be made,” Bucklin-Sporer explains.

“We were setting up the organizations and offices to support the district-wide surge of green schoolyards. And all the while, we dreamed of having this great corps of young people that would go out into the public schools and teach all the kids about science…show them the environment, teach them about the natural world, assist them in becoming eco-literate and environmentally responsible. Really, it was to help them develop a deep and endearing bond with the natural world. To love it!”

The passion in this dream is self-evident. But when Education Outside explained the idea to philanthropic organizations, principals and teachers, they took pains to describe it in systematic terms that demonstrated that the greening of public schools was far more than just a dream. The Corps for Education Outside would be established as an integral part of the science-teaching curriculum in the San Francisco public schools. They would be the help that so many of the teachers in the district had said that they needed. Education Outside thought of them as a Teach-Environmental-Education-for-America corps. “These Corps members would be college-educated individuals, from everywhere in the country, trained in educational standards, behavior management, land restorative practices, horticulture, leadership,” Bucklin-Sporer says. They would be paid $25,000 a year, with benefits, and would be expected to fulfill a two-year commitment.

This 2014-2015 school year, Education Outside will employ 26 Corps members, and Pringle is in charge of them. As the senior director of programs, she handles the finding and hiring of Corps members, and their training. She is also the initial contact for schools that wish to have an outdoor science curriculum, and she places the trained Corps members in those schools.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.

Photo courtesy of Education Outside.


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In 2008, Arden Bucklin-Sporer was seated at her desk at Education Outside, when the phone rang. An editor from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon was on the other end of the line, and explained that she had heard about the green schoolyard movement, had read about it, and was wondering whether there was any thought about writing a book.

“I looked over at Rachel and said, ‘Hey Rache, you want to write a book?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ That’s how long it took us to agree on the project.”

The book was published in 2010, and How To Grow A School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers is the most compendious, detailed and practical guide to the greening of a schoolyard that exists. It begins with a thoughtful appraisal of why green schoolyards are necessary to a child’s complete educational experience. Following chapters cover everything from design ideas for the schoolyard, to budgeting, fundraising, how to keep the garden healthy, planting, harvesting and cooking in the garden, and year-round garden lessons and activities. The most useful chapter, titled “Developing Your School Garden Program”, details the process through which a school or a school district can set up such a program efficiently, thus saving the participants from the trial and error difficulties through which the Green Schoolyard Alliance innovators had to go.

One of the real pleasures of this book lies in the quality of the writing. Neither Bucklin-Sporer nor Pringle are professional writers. But the ease of style in this book makes the reading of what could have been a dry science education tome into a real pleasure. The book is also amply illustrated with photos from several San Francisco schools, examples for educators of California state content standards, a list of resources (with an emphasis on California organizations, but with many others located around the U.S.) and even a chapter devoted to garden recipes.

Lori Shelton is the senior project manager for the bond program at the San Francisco Unified School District. As such, she manages the green schoolyard portion of the funds that came from the three school bond propositions. “I make sure that projects be created for the greening of the schools, and that they be maintained per the desires of the voters of San Francisco.”

Asked to assess the effects of the green schoolyard concept so far, Shelton is unequivocally upbeat. “It’s hugely successful, in large part because of the efforts of people like Arden and Rachel and the other advocates for this kind of education. After the 2003 bond was implemented, the voters said ‘This is a great idea, and we want to continue it.’ So the 2006 and 2011 bond votes speak volumes about where this program has taken us.”

Shelton does offer a cautionary note for the future, which has to do with the sustainability of the various green schoolyard projects once they are completed.

“It’s going to be up to the individual schools to put together teams and to develop ideas of how to sustain the green schoolyards over time. Sustainability in this case means basic maintenance. Things age. They break down. If we want to continue saying that we’re a success, we’re going to have to provide for appropriate maintenance. It’s critical.”

Asked her opinion of what is most important about Education Outside and the San Francisco Unified School District model, Bucklin-Sporer is succinct.

“Two things. This is an incredibly well thought out program that adds a lot of educational value for not a lot of money per pupil to every school. Also, it is a do-gooder, save-the-world kind of an idea. Our Corps members are learning a lot, they’re doing good and they’re appreciated. They’re like pied pipers to the kids in the school. They’re adding great value to so many of those kids’ lives, and that’s inspiring to me.”

Asked the same question, Pringle talks about innovation in teaching.

“A garden is dynamic, a dynamic teaching tool. We think these outdoor classes are critical to elementary education. There are many individual schools around the country that have green schoolyards. But we’d like to be known for having pioneered a whole new phase of green education in schools, in which such schoolyards are in every school.”

As the school garden movement has gained momentum, noted writer/storyteller Beatrice Bowles has written about ways in which gardens inspire an appreciation for nature and for science, in children who live in cities. (Bowles was for some years a member of the board of the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.)

“Now more than ever, as spaces for children to explore and appreciate nature are shrinking, school gardens create real oases in the urban hardscape. In these gardens, children experience nature’s beauty, learn nature’s laws, and improve their own health by growing their own fresh food. Education Outdoors’ school gardens are the best I have seen anywhere.”

At this writing in 2014, 43 primary schools in San Francisco have been implemented with green schoolyards, and 30 more are in the pipeline. The goal is to have all 75 San Francisco public primary schools greened, by the end of school year 2017.


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