July 11, 2016

By Leslie Crenna

If you aren’t connected with Cesar Chavez Elementary school (CCE), you might not know about the amazing progress of the school garden program over the past few years. New energy, dedication from stalwart veterans, and support from Principal Denise Beck and the PTA have unearthed some fantastic growth.

Notable successes include a guiding conceptual plan, newly constructed raised beds, a parent-installed rainwater capture system, a kid-painted stormwater catchment mural, plans to install an outdoor classroom, and planting of a native habitat area.

While the program has always been strong, the day to day experience — grounded in a beautiful, thriving, and educational garden for students and the school community — has truly begun to blossom.

Garden coordinators get busy

Last year, parents Alisa Haller, a legacy garden coordinator, and Paul Havemann, a natural resources management professional, got serious about expanding the program with a focus on water, environmental health, stewardship, and outdoor experiential learning.

With support and funding from the CCE PTA and school administrators, the garden program is moving in a new and ambitious direction. Another veteran garden coordinator, ‘grow master’ Kendall Essex, has added much needed structure to the rapidly developing concept plan.

What started as a more nuts and bolts renovation project — illustrated by the conceptual plan that includes a reconstructed garden, a new outdoor classroom, and a wetland swale — has expanded to include curricular and instructional enhancements around the concept of nature-based learning.

Chavez Elem Garden Program Improvements
Chavez Elem Garden Program has added many new elements including a learning kiosk.

In Alisa’s words: “There is a growing awareness of the value and need for children to learn from nature and for schools to have ecologically healthy campuses. There is a wealth of nature based lessons for science, nutrition and other disciplines available, but they require functioning outdoor learning spaces for teachers and volunteers to utilize them.

“I believe CCE is poised to be a real leader in the nature based learning movement with its inheritance of Cesar Chavez’s legacy, the proximity to the wealth of knowledge at UCD, and the commitment I see from teachers and families here,” she continued.

Water and quality curriculum major focus points in renewed efforts

One of the first changes was a new rainwater capture system installed as a parent hands-on workshop run by Blue Barrel Systems, a company started by Davis native Jesse Froehlich.

Chavez Elem Garden Program Students Dig In
Students dig in to new garden beds with garden coordinators. Photo Courtesy Kendall Essex.

Kendall Essex has been contributing to the garden program at Chavez since her now fourth grade daughter began there in kindergarden.

Kendall has assumed the position of Field Coordinator and will oversee — amongst a thousand other tasks — preparation for Fall plantings for the native habitat bed in the new outdoor classroom area and the continued development of garden curricula.

Kendall writes: “The program has many wonderful environmental education materials we can’t wait to share with the CCE community. The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program and Project Learning Tree curricula are specifically geared toward the Common Core and provide activities that are creative and engaging for students.”

Another exciting activity was the creation of a large mural depicting how rainfall is directed from the school yard stormwater drain to the Davis Wetlands east of town. Chavez’s yearly Fiesta Day featured a kid-led question wheel activity and painting of the mural designed by local artist Will Durkee.

Will’s design shows bulging raindrops falling from clouds, sliding into the stormwater drain, then flowing out again into a vibrant ecosystem filled with fish, turtles, and egrets.

Students more engaged and asking more questions

Chavez Elem Garden Program Storm Drain Mural Close Up
Kids engage with stormwater and ecosystems via art as part of the Chavez Elementary Garden Program. Photo courtesy Paul Havemann.

Third grade student, Avalie, who helped with the painting learned that the “drain where the rainwater goes ends up in a beautiful lake” and that we “have to be careful with water and not just waste it.”

Another student Anna thought it was a “beautiful collage of water” that “gives life to all sorts of things like fish.”

A kindergartner Nina said that it “taught her about saving water” and that the image was “a habitat about saving water” and the water that goes down the drain “flows into river water.”

All the kids seemed eager to share about the new garden activities. Anna said she was excited and that the “kids are focusing more on liking the things that they make [in the garden], asking more questions, and wanting to try more and more new things.”

Nina was “happy because I like doing art.”

Knowledgeable parents to join the team in coming year

Unfortunately for CCE, Alisa has accepted a garden teaching position at the Davis Waldorf School for the upcoming school year, but before leaving brought on parent Valerie Calegari for an organizational reboot to the program and to pursue funding.

Chavez Elem Garden Program Two Students Investigate
At the Chavez Elementary Garden Program two students explore the quality of the soil. Photo courtesy Kendall Essex.

The garden program will be looking to fill Alisa’s role with an able and willing parent candidate from the school in the near future.

A number of new parent sign-ons for the new year include Jennifer Charles, another returning veteran, as well as Steve Nyholm of the Davis Permaculture Guild and Anya Perron-Burdick, program manager for Yolo Farm to Fork.

Seeking support and collaboration with the wider community

Project coordinators have also been working diligently at expanding opportunities for collaboration with the larger Davis community and have forged an intern partnership with UC Davis Department of Sustainable Agriculture.

The program is also looking to create a more sustainable long term structure and will collaborate with CCE personnel and other key stakeholders to establish a steering committee to develop, implement, and monitor the outcomes of the wider concept plan.

For more pictures and ongoing updates about the Chavez Garden Program check out their Facebook page at  www.facebook.com/CCEGardenPgme.

For more information please feel free to contact Paul Havemann at havemannp@gmail.com or Kendall Essex at kcessex@gmail.com.


Chavez Elem Garden Program Storm Drain Mural
Chavez Elem Garden Program new mural illustrates how rainwater becomes water for animals and humans. Photo courtesy Paul Havemann.