Tucked away in a tiny corner of Newbury Park is Rancho Satwiwa, part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. One Friday a month, 70 fifth-graders from nearby Manzanita Elementary School take the school bus for a much-anticipated and well-earned trip to Rancho Satwiwa. For most, this is the highlight of their month.
Most of the kids have never been to a national park before. A significant number come from economically disadvantaged families, while some are learning English for the first time. For most of them, the idea of play is in front of the computer or the television. Some have never gone camping with their families, and then there are others who have never seen so much open space in their lives.
“There was definitely a physical and academic need that had to be addressed here. As a child, I lived next to Mount Diablo State Park in Northern California. I was always out there camping, getting dirty and trying to satisfy my young, inquisitive mind. Science was the norm then,” says Christine Steigelman, a fifth-grade teacher at Manzanita.
Fairly new to fifth grade but with several years of teaching experience behind her, Steigelman got frustrated that no outdoor science program was in place for her grade level. Adding to her frustration was the fact that Rancho Satwiwa was right in Manzanita’s backyard; five miles away, and yet it seemed so inaccessible.
Everything changed two summers ago. The brainchild of Steigelman, SHRUB (Students Helping Restore Unique Biomes) started after Steigelman attended a NASA-sponsored seminar two summers ago and met Lisa Okazaki, a park ranger.
“It was like an alignment of the stars when I met Lisa,” Steigelman says. “My ideas and her support just flowed together. The collaboration between Manzanita and the National Park Service then started.” The National Park Service pledged their support and a dedicated team of park rangers to educate the kids.
Just like any project in its maiden year, SHRUB had its share of birth pains. The usual funding and logistics issues were present. But with foundation grants and donations from local businesses starting to come in, it is thriving in its second year.
“The partnership between Manzanita and the National Park Service is ideal because we have common goals, and everyone is fully committed to SHRUB,” says Barbara Applebaum, lead park ranger for SHRUB. “We have ranger volunteers and parent volunteers on top of the full-time rangers, who have dedicated themselves to educating the kids and helping them make the most out of this experience.”
Jennifer Boone, principal of Manzanita, says, “The partnership works because we all want the best learning environment for our students.”
SHRUB integrates math, science, language arts and physical education into this outdoor learning environment. Not only are the kids engaged and active participants, but they also provide service to the community through the restoration work they are doing. An estimated 12,000 people visit Rancho Satwiwa and the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center every year.
“What does restoration mean?” Antonio Solorio, one of the park rangers tasked to educate the students on-site, asks a group of students assembled before him. Several hands go up, and Ranger Antonio calls on Jeffy, 9, who says, “It’s when you bring something back to its natural state.”
Looking pleased with the answer, Ranger Antonio proceeds, “In this case, you will be working with plants that are native to California.” Native California plants that the kids have planted include mule fat, giant wild rye, sagebrush, gum plant and hummingbird sage.
A typical Friday starts out with a 45-minute exploration hike through the trails. For the first field trip this school year, Donna, a volunteer ranger, led one of the classes on the hike. She patiently pointed out flora and fauna to the kids along the way, stopping to check every now and then if everyone was following her lead. At one point, one of the kids said, “Did you see the coyote?” Apparently, only a handful of the kids spotted the coyote.
“This is so cool, seeing all these animals for the first time out here,” exclaims Aida, 10, taking out her binoculars.
“Did you see the bluebird?” asks Ranger Donna. On the first field trip for this year alone, the fifth-graders sighted a coyote and several varieties of birds. The flora is another story.
According to Ranger Lisa, most of the plants the previous fifth-graders planted last year are still around and flourishing. “There’s the mule fat right there and the gum plant. And there’s the hummingbird sage,” and Ranger Lisa proceeds to enumerate all the plants she recognizes as she walks around the plots.
At the end of the day, the students get to reflect on their observations. They each have a journal to write their thoughts on and draw whatever flora or fauna particularly caught their attention that day. They also record humidity, weather and soil conditions, with the use of weather instruments.
“I actually guessed correctly that it is 72 degrees today,” gushes Jordan, 10.
The uniqueness factor
SHRUB is unique because no other public elementary school in the area has this kind of program. According to Applebaum, “Some schools will come out for a field trip, but it’s always a one-shot deal. Not one school is as deeply involved and committed as Manzanita, from the principal to the students. It is the only school that comes out here once a month to do restoration work.”
“This program stands out because the students are immersed,” Ranger Antonio said, “They have practical and hands-on projects. They get to apply what they are learning right away.” Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne reportedly stopped by during a field trip and was impressed with the students’ restoration plots.
In February 2008, the fifth-graders will once again take the bus, but this time to Death Valley National Park. Manzanita was the only public elementary school invited by the National Park Service to take part in a two-day camp-out. As Death Valley plays host, the students will once again have this rare opportunity to experience the outdoors and observe wildlife in another national park. Says Adam, 10, “I can’t wait to go camping for two days! Imagine that!”
One Saturday in April, the students will get the chance to bring their families to Rancho Satwiwa to show off their plots and enjoy a picnic lunch. Their project is a source of pride for most since they have not done anything like this before. The students will also get the chance to hone their presentation and public speaking skills as they explain the work they have done for the last eight or nine months to their families.
The SHRUB year-ender in June 2008 will find the fifth-graders introducing the program to the fourth-graders. Dubbed “Students Teaching Students,” the fifth-graders will play host, give a tour to the fourth-graders and give them a preview of restoration work.
“I would love for SHRUB to continue beyond the next few years. It’s all good right now. I just want to find a way to sustain it, especially from a financial perspective,” said Steigelman.
“I hope SHRUB continues to evolve and spark a new interest in science and our national parks. I hope that our students learn the benefit of serving in their community and that their eyes are opened to possible careers in environmental education,” says Boone.
There are ongoing talks with a nearby middle school about replicating the program. “It is still in the planning stage, but definitely a short-term possibility. The SHRUB model is so successful that they want to adopt it in the middle school level,” says Applebaum.
70 – fifth-graders
8 – countries represented by the fifth-graders
75 – percentage of Manzanita students who are at or below the federal poverty level
2 – fifth-grade teachers
6 – parent volunteers
5 – park rangers
350 – park ranger hours per school year
10 – field trips per school year
100 – miles traveled per school year
30 – miles hiked per school year
680 – seeds collected during the first field trip in September
15 – varieties of California plants planted
20 – kinds of animals sighted
11 – community partners that have sustained the program
12,000 – community residents who have benefited