The Living Classroom Program, which provides garden-based science lessons in the Los Altos School District, is thriving.
The program has sustained growth rates of 50 percent per year over the past two years, providing more than 400 lessons to students in grades K-7 this school year alone.
“The teacher and student feedback from the lessons have been extremely positive, and we are thrilled that more and more students are getting this important exposure to the natural world,” said Nadia Jankovic, Living Classroom docent. “The lessons are science based and tie very well to the children’s school curriculum, helping reinforce what is being taught in the classroom with a hands-on, nature-based focus that the kids really enjoy.”
Founded in 2008, the Living Classroom operates in all seven district elementary schools and is piloting seventh-grade science lessons at Blach Junior High School in the spring.
Trained volunteers conduct the lessons primarily outdoors. Specially designed school gardens featuring California native plants and raised planter boxes for edibles are the backdrop for most of the lessons, which also cross into math and social studies.
The increase in demand for lessons has prompted a consequent need for additional docents, particularly in the fall and spring, when the concentration of lessons is greatest.
“We are trying to get the word out to parents and community members that we are in a hiring mode – no experience necessary – just an interest in teaching children the wonders of nature and a few hours a month. We take care of the rest,” said Mike Sanderson, program director. “One of the most satisfying experiences you can have as a volunteer docent is to see the genuine excitement on children’s faces when they are really engaged, with all their senses, in learning. Seeing that sense of wonder and connection that children make, sometimes for the first time, with something living in the garden, is truly magical.”
The school gardens have experienced similar growth, with more than 30 gardens gracing the campuses. A new native habitat and raised-bed garden is scheduled for installation at Gardner Bullis School in late February. The school PTA, which is funding the project, will receive a rebate from the Santa Clara Valley Water District because it is replacing a lawn with a water-conserving garden. Several local Eagle Scout candidates will help install the garden.
Egan Junior High School is designing an educational garden for the garden-based lessons, and Covington School plans to add planter boxes for garden space. New gardens have also been planted at Santa Rita, Covington, Loyola, Almond and Blach schools since last summer. Springer School is slated to add a sturdy greenhouse to its comprehensive garden.
Since its inception, private donations have funded the Living Classroom. Local foundations such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Los Altos Educational Foundation, the Morgan Family Foundation and the Los Altos Community Foundation Youth Philanthropy Program and other businesses and individuals have kept the program afloat for the past three years.
“This program has been amazing in how much community support it has generated. I guess its whole premise of experiential learning through exposure to living things really resonates with people,” said Living Classroom docent Candice Stark. “It’s been such a positive addition to our schools – not only the lessons themselves, but the gardens which the children see and experience every day.”
Two spring volunteer training sessions are scheduled, 9-11:30 a.m. March 1 and 8 in the Los Altos School District Board Room, 201 Covington Road.