Don't Forget to Water the Classroom

Williamson Elementary Students Plant New Schoolyard Habitat

On Tuesday, March 8, students at Williamson Elementary School in Rancho Cordova put the finishing touches on their newest classroom, using shovels and trowels and getting dirty in the process. The school, which was very close to shutting down last year, now has a new place to learn outside of the classroom in a native pollinator garden. Limited budgets for field trips will not be boxing these kids in this year. 

The excitement of the day was not always a given. Last year Williamson was one of three schools in the area that were considered for closure. Two would need to close and other neighborhood schools would absorb the students from those closing. It was a very strong possibility that it could have been Williamson. Near the end of the school year, the decision to keep Williamson open was made.

Now instead of closing its doors, after a year and a half of teacher training and site preparation, students eagerly planted, mulched and watered their new classroom. As the weather warms and plants grow and bloom, this garden full of native plants will attract pollinator species, such as butterflies and songbirds, and give students an engaging place to learn outside of the classroom.

“It’s great to see kids in a different light outside of the classroom,” said school’s principal, Andy Smith. “It’s getting them out of the classroom and getting [them] to do things they wouldn’t normally do.” 

A Long Time Coming

Young Girls Planting

Photo: Sarah Swenty, SFWO External Affairs

The garden has been a long time coming. Robin Van de Carr and Cheryl Walter, two teachers from the preK-5th grade Title 1 school, were selected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program to attend a two week RESTORE Institute workshop in July 2009. 

Led by Earth Partnership for Schools at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, the goal of the RESTORE (Restoration-Education, Science Training and Outreach for Regional Educators) Initiative is to use native plantings and the process of ecological restoration on school grounds as a means of placing education reform into core subject areas. 

Upon their return, the teachers were eager to put their skills to work. They set up meetings to coordinate with administrators, teachers, and community members to start planning a schoolyard habitat project at Williamson. 

Van de Carr and Walter worked with several community partners to obtain donations of materials and labor, including Aerco Pacific Inc., Fallen Leaf Tree Service and Home Depot. The school received funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program for plants, signs, and path materials. 

Supporting national efforts on a local level, the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office (SFWO) staff provided on-site technical assistance to help create an effective, sustainable outdoor classroom and wildlife habitat on Williamson’s school grounds.

“This garden is a tremendous gift to Williamson kids,” explained Robin Van de Carr. “Not just the students who are helping plant this year, but also every Williamson student who will learn and explore in this garden in years to come.”

Kids Planting

Photo: Sarah Swenty, SFWO External Affairs

Outside and Involved

On the day of planting, more than 200 students worked in 20 minute shifts. After a brief lesson in native plants, animals and planting given by Karleen Vollherbst, SFWO Schoolyard Habitat Coordinator, students, assisted by SFWO staff, literally dug in to the work, digging holes and planting native plants.

With much excitement over the amount of worms found in the soil, and the chance to be outdoors and working on something of their own, students took great pride in their work and their responsibility within the project.

Kids Explore and Plant Native Plants

Photo: Sarah Swenty, SFWO External Affairs

The projects goals are to provide habitat for wildlife through native plantings and to provide an outdoor study area for students.  Teachers have been equipped with lessons they can do in the habitat that cover curriculum standards. Both Ms. Van de Carr and Mrs. Walter now help teach the same training in Sacramento for other area teachers, through RESTORE Sacramento.

“On our own, a project like this would have only been a dream, but we've had amazing support from the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office and local companies like Aerco Pacific,” said Van de Carr. “We've had someone holding our hand every step of the way. The end result is going to be fantastic!”

Thanks to their efforts, the support of the community, and the Schoolyard Habitat Program, students of Williamson Elementary now have an outside classroom that they can call their own.  

Story & Photos by Sarah Swenty, SFWO External Affairs