Nestled off the beaten path in a quiet Ignacio neighborhood sits Loma Verde Elementary School. Embracing one of NUSD's most diverse student populations, principal Eileen Smith has led the school's dedicated teaching staff and parent community on an amazing journey of transformation in recent years. One of the elements that has brought distinction to Loma Verde is its thriving, innovative garden program; appropriate since the school's name literally means "green hill."
No stranger to "green" thinking herself, Principal Smith leads by example, commuting daily from her home in San Rafael to Ignacio via bicycle--an 18 mile round-trip, rain or shine. Needless to say, she is an inspiration to her students.
I must admit I have a particular fondness for this school and its community, having worked on campus as a member of the office staff for three years. In that time, I was privileged to be a part of Loma Verde's reinvention, witnessing first hand the school's metamorphosis as it emerged into a new era of sustainable thinking.
The movement began four years ago when parent Nancy Atkis successfully mobilized the school community to create an organic garden on campus. A large space adjacent to the library was designated for the plot. Parents, staff, and students donated time and money to make the dream a reality; working side-by-side to clear the lot, install deer fencing, and build planter boxes.
Atkis was soon joined by parent Jennie Pardi, co-founder of the Marin School Garden Network and a staunch advocate for keeping the garden program front and center in Loma Verde's identity. The project was a perfect fit for Pardi, who also works for the Conservation Corps North Bay managing Environmental Service Programs and the IVC Organic Farm and Garden at the College of Marin.
Pardi expanded the vision of Loma Verde's garden, using funding from a NOAA Ocean Guardian School grant, Marin Community Foundation grant, and the school's PTA to develop a progressive campus-wide green and sustainability program.
When it comes to sustainability, Loma Verde's "green team" is impressive. The school has adopted a system of composting and recycling that successfully diverted 80% of waste generated on campus last year. "We went from emptying twenty garbage cans a day to five," Pardi tells me, "and we're aiming for zero lunch waste." Students compost all food scraps from lunch in the school's worm bins, or recycle excess in green yard cans.
The current focus of Loma Verde's green program stems from a Watershed Stewardship Grant received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The three-year grant makes Loma Verde an "Ocean Guardian School" in return for teaching students the importance of protecting local watersheds.
It outlines six key components of study and implementation including landscaping with native plants, organic gardening, composting, recycling, litter reduction, and water conservation. "We teach the kids that everything we do at school affects our watershed," Pardi explains.
A final component of the grant calls for student outreach activities that contribute to the health and viability of Novato's community watershed. To that end, Loma Verde’s 2nd-4th grade students have worked with S.T.R.A.W. (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) and the Marin County Open Space district to help with creek restoration efforts in Indian Valley.
The NOAA grant also pays for an AmeriCorp garden educator, Alaina Gutfeld, to teach garden classes and watershed conservation to Loma Verde students two days a week. In addition, an after school garden club program provides a popular outlet for students wishing to spend extra time tending the school plot.
Walking around campus, it's easy to observe sustainable principles in action. New native plant beds of sage, iris, California poppy, manzanita, ceanothus, and other drought-tolerant shrubs have replaced thirstier, high maintenance vegetation. These local species also attract pollinators, beneficial insects, and birds to Loma Verde's garden, providing more opportunity for students to see nature at work.
The original organic garden space continues to thrive, its vegetables and fruit trees irrigated as much as possible with water gleaned from three 65 gallon rainwater catchment tanks. Each year, the plot receives new infusions of compost, seeds, and plants thanks to generous donations from Sonoma Compost, Green Point Nursery, and the IVC Farm and Garden.
At the height of each season, children harvest and take home the garden's bounty--a perk that is gratifying for many. "A lot of our families don't have access to a garden," Pardi tells me, "so it's particularly rewarding for these kids to grow and eat fresh, organic produce. They love it!"
Adjacent to the garden a new outdoor classroom space now occupies a once vacant lot, thanks to the Ignacio Rotary Club which awarded funding for the project and provided the labor to build it. Today, teachers and students enjoy gathering beneath the canopy of trees which shades this space, engaging in lively discussions centered on ecology, science, and environmental stewardship.
Loma Verde has been lucky to have the resources and support required to maintain and expand its garden program. Not all schools are so fortunate. With state budget cuts and less money to go around, more and more schools are being forced to abandon enrichment programs like gardens.
"It's too bad we have to fight to advocate for these programs," Pardi says sadly. "They are not seen as valuable in the same way as traditional academics, but they are an indispensable tool." That's why Pardi will continue to seek out avenues for funding school gardens. Her goal is to see a garden on every campus in the future.
Perhaps one day more schools will follow the example set by Loma Verde, creating not just a garden, but a program centered around campus sustainability.
Hot Tip of the Week: Project Regeneration, a FREE four week summer camp for middle and high school youth, is coming again to Loma Verde's campus this summer. The project combines environmental and community service with volunteers performing tasks like weeding, mulching, and watering. Project Regeneration is available to help maintain school gardens! Contact the Conservation Corps North Bay at www.conservationcorpsnorthbay.org to be placed on their list of service projects.