In what used to be a concrete courtyard of a South L.A. school, a quaint oasis has emerged; trees, native plants and tree stump-lined pathways create an 'urban forest' that have begun attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and a rare squirrel sighting.
“They think it’s a big forest. They're little, so for them this is a huge thing,” said Sonia Rodriguez, a Parent Community Representative who helped organize the school's Green Team.
This squad consists entirely of volunteers (mostly parents and family members) who are responsible for creating and maintaining the forest at Main Street Elementary School. Rodriguez said that for many students this "urban forest" is their only exposure to nature; many of the kids had never seen a squirrel before one wandered into the forest earlier this year.
This project is a result of a collaborative effort spearheaded by Tree People and funded by a $10,000-grant from Superior Groceries. TreePeople's Michelle Bagnato said most of the grant money went towards La Loma landscaping and development but the firm also did a lot of additional work for free.
Bagnato said she's been working on Main Street's forest for the last year and a half, and in order for this space to exist, Bagnato had to ensure that the project would have little impact on the school's existing maintenance staff. This meant recruiting the help of people from the neighborhood.
"We have found that without the infrastructure of a strong parent or staff component, that it [the forest] wont be maintained," said Bagnato. "It's a community project."
The space where the forest now sits used be to all concrete and asphalt, said Bagnato, with grey benches, metal benches and a solitary tree. It's now up to the parent volunteers to keep the space alive and growing. In addition to the weekly maintenance issues, there were four major work days where 100 to 150 parents came to the school and got busy carrying out the work that La Loma planned.
The school's principal Elizabeth Bernal has only been at the elementary school since July when the project was already well under way, but she said the forest's importance to the community was apparent from the start.
“From the moment I got here it was very clear that this project was very meaningful to the community because it was one of the first things that I heard about – not only from the outgoing principal but also from the parents…” she said.
In addition to merely being a place to spend recess, Bernal said the space will be used by teachers to conduct lessons math and science while students study everything from water cycles to the rate of plant growth. Being able to physically interact with the material is more effective than reading or watching a video about it.
“if you can actually come out and see the plants, and see the trees and see the rings…and see everything, it just becomes much more alive and kids get more engaged,” said Bernal.
Not only has it spurred student involvement but parents are getting their hands dirty too. Rodriguez said there is up to ten parents working in the forest on any given day, and it will be the parents who are responsible for maintaining the greenery for years to come. She said it also appears to have enhanced familial relationships, as many moms and dads are too busy to communicate with their kids when they're at home, but when they're working in the garden and the students are on recess, they have time to really talk.
Although all the trees and foliage were planted in the Spring, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that everything had taken root was ready to be opened up for use. As of last week, the only main feature still under construction was the forest's creek.
Bagnato said that LAUSD classifies ponds as safety hazards, so there are none allowed on school campuses -- but Main Street will have a trickling "seasonal creek. " This stream will have water dripped in where it will then flow through the area's embankments, into gravel and end on a sandy beach area. She said although the amount of water is small, it will still attract dragonflies and other insects that help restore the area's natural habitat.
Bagnato said the bigger picture is not just about creating a space for nature at school, but encouraging families to do so at home as well. She said the forest was a "demonstration site" and much of the process involves educating volunteers about soil, plants and maintaining their own green space.
Main Street Elementary held their official opening ceremony for the forest last weekend. The school has more than 1,110 students enrolled in kindergarten through 5th grade and this is one of 10 LAUSD schools that TreePeople helped make-over in the last year.