by Jesse Quinn, Ph.D.
Leo Politi Elementary School sits in a densely populated, low-income neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. The landscape for a couple of miles in all directions is concrete, cars, buildings, and the occasional tree and small community park. In 2008, only 9% of the fifth-graders at Leo Politi were proficient in science, according to standardized test scores. In the spring of 2011, 53% tested as proficient or even advanced. Was there a change in curriculum? Institutional changes? Well, no…actually, they planted some plants.
In 2008, Leo Politi received $18,000 in grants from Audubon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a “schoolyard habitat.” On a vacant one-tenth of an acre on the school grounds, students and teachers planted native plants and oak trees. The bugs followed, then the birds. Soon, the kids were identifying the bird and plant species, and then taking note of their different behaviors. Now the fifth-graders are compiling and illustrating a Field Guide to the Flora and Fauna of Leo Politi Elementary School. One of the kids wants to be an ornithologist.
Creating urban habitat is far more than cultivating some plants. It cultivates curiosity and inspires creativity, slowing down, watching. And most of all, it instills the idea that biodiversity doesn’t just exist in the pages of National Geographic or in Yosemite National Park, but can be alive and thriving in your own backyard.