School officials rarely mention the possibility of incorporating green building designs and open, natural spaces where teachers can hold hands-on lessons about the environment. These green ideas have been neglected, in part due to the ongoing struggle to keep the $198 million Measure G bond projects within the budget without making major sacrifices.
But plenty of options are still available to put environmental projects into the campus modernization efforts, according to Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America. At the Feb. 4 board meeting, Danks showcased a series of innovative projects around the world that Mountain View schools could incorporate — if there's a willingness to work with other agencies to pull it off.
Danks said that schools around the world have added wildlife habitats ranging from small butterfly gardens to large prairies, giving students a chance to learn about the environment right outside their classrooms. Other districts, like the San Francisco Unified, have teamed up with a local water agency to install school-wide cisterns that collect and store rainwater for future use.
Students in urban environments have become increasingly distant from the natural world in recent years, she said, and these kinds of projects serve as an important hands-on experience for kids.
"Why study the watershed in the book when you can go outside and see see where the rain goes when it falls, and how it travels from your rooftop here at your school to the local creek," Danks said.
The California Department of Education appears to be on the same page. In September, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced a new plan for improving student instruction by introducing "environmental literacy," which is intended to help students understand the importance of environmental stewardship in the face of climate change, wildfires and drought. The blueprint suggests that schools provide at least 40 hours per school year of outdoor school time, and that school officials set aside 5 percent of bond funds for "multi-use outdoor ecological learning environments on school grounds."
And in 2014, the California State Assembly passed a resolution calling on school districts to prioritize the design and construction of green space on schools that can be integrated into the existing curriculum.
Most of the green space and environmental education initiatives going on at the Mountain View Whisman School District have been spearheaded by Vicki Moore, and her nonprofit Living Classroom. The nonprofit has spent the last few years installing two gardens — one for fruits and vegetables and one for native Californian plants — at every elementary school in the district. The native garden at Theuerkauf Elementary, home to the California buckeye, coyote brush and California fuchsia, straddles classroom wings in the heart of the campus. An edible garden with peas, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots and other foods sits at the end of the pathway leading to the back of the campus.
The school district offers a number of resources to Living Classroom, including space for storing supplies, but does not provide any direct funding for the program.
Board member Jose Gutierrez urged the rest of the board to consider adding green space projects to school modernization, and said it's important to add the environmental component as part of a larger paradigm shift in education. But the question of how to pay for the projects had some board members skeptical.
Board member Bill Lambert expressed concerns that planning for nature-centric construction might have had to happen early on in the bond process, rather than right in the middle of planning when over half the budget has already been allocated. Chief Business Officer Robert Clark said any inclusion of a green schoolyard project would likely have to come at the expense of another project.
Danks later told the Voice that there are plenty of options on the table that are revenue-neutral, provided school districts are willing to acknowledge environmental education as a priority. It could be as simple as tearing out asphalt for construction of a new playground, and leaving it out once construction is complete, in favor of green space, she said.
Most of all, she said it's important for school districts like Mountain View Whisman to look to other agencies for funding options, including water agencies like the Santa Clara Valley Water District, as well as the city of Mountain View.
City Council member John McAlister, who attended the meeting, told the board that there are plenty of opportunities for the city to work with the school district and integrate environmental education initiatives into city parks. It's probably too late to add anything to the Rengstorff Park construction plans, he said, but hopefully there are a few opportunities for future partnerships.
"This is an excellent example of where the city could collaborate with school districts in how to design its parks," McAlister said.
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