Giving Back to the Community
Students Learn Science & Social Lessons
People used to write off Lake Dalwigk. That's not a place to take your kids to, they'd say of the inner city-park in Vallejo, California. Too many gangs. Too many drugs.
Karen Garcia, a fifth grade teacher at Grace Patterson Elementary School in Vallejo, agreed. That's why, in fall 2001, she started taking her fifth grade students and their parents there for field trips. Those trips proved to be a transforming experience, for the kids and for the park.
Garcia wanted to teach her students about wetlands habitats. The park's well-watered grounds happened to have a quite extensive one. "We studied wetlands in class, and I was looking for somewhere to show them some wetlands outside of class," she says. "And this park had them."
But more than that, she wanted to get them and their parents interested in a piece of the community that others had forgotten. "If families started going back there en masse…it could help to make it a more family-oriented place again," she says.
Garcia was involved in Neighborhood Watch at the time, so safety was not an issue.
So she led her students on walks through the park to observe the animal and plant life. With the parents, she organized picnics in the park.
And other people began to take notice. If Garcia and her group could frequent this park in safety, couldn't they? "We were letting families know that it was safe to go there, that it was again a place for kids to go to," Garcia says.
For those remaining skeptics, Garcia and her students wrote a class letter to the editor of the local newspaper, saying what a valuable resource the park was, and urging other community groups to get involved in it.
Other groups did. The local Audobon Society volunteered members to show the students the birds that lived in the park. The sanitation department sent a guide with holding nets and microscopes to show them the microscopic organisms that live in the water.
Sure enough, the dangerous elements started leaving. "The drug users left when they saw us coming," she says.
Months later, Lake Dalwigk was a vibrant place of community activity and volunteer efforts. "We were, in a way, giving back to the community a resource that they were reluctant to use because of the kind of people that had sort of begun to take it over and hang out there," Garcia says.
The students' involvement in the park was instrumental in that, and Garcia was sure to point that out to them. "It was a science project as well as a community development project," Garcia says. "It was a way of getting students and parents together and to make them more interested in their community."
Garcia says that showing students that they can make a difference for the environment is especially important today. With all the bad news about global warming, urban pollution, and rising fossil fuel consumption, one can despair of being able to make a difference. "When we teach environmentalism to children, we tend to teach doom and gloom, and children can get very discouraged," Garcia says. "By getting them out there and getting them involved locally, it really empowered them."
The students started to see that their actions really could make a positive difference. "They realized that when they and their families started going to this park and started taking interest, other local organizations started taking interest. It gave them a feeling that they could be activists, that their actions could be worthwhile."
More importantly, they saw that they could have the greatest impact when they worked together. "I believe that when kids start working on a project as a team, and start building something greater than them, they start to act more civilly toward each other," Garcia says.
And it was a chance to make them feel more like a part of their neighborhood. "It's a matter of just getting students out of the classroom and into their communities. That can really have an impact upon their lives."
Needless to say, she was teaching the adults some civics lessons, too. "We were also getting the neighborhood to know each other and have more pride in their neighborhood," Garcia says. Clearly, Garcia and her class did more than learn about an ecosystem. "My hope is that it will give them a lifelong interest in democracy and might have a global impact."