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How an Urban Oasis Gave Grade Schoolers a Boost

Louis Sagahun explores the unexpected benefits of trading 5,000 square feet of grass and pavement for native plants at a Los Angeles elementary school.
April 18, 2012, 10am PDT | Ryan Lue
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Located deep in the concrete jungle just west of Downtown Los Angeles, Leo Politi Elementary School has witnessed a transformation in student learning and engagement. Like so many inner-city schools, it suffered from low test scores and a dreary landscape – that is, until a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought a natural habitat onto the schoolyard.

After crews tore up 5,000 square feet of blacktop and replaced it with native flora, bugs shortly followed. After bugs came birds, and after birds came children. Marveled by the natural processes taking place on the playground, the children found a real-life experience against which to anchor their scientific curiosity, leading the school to an astronomical improvement on test scores in science.

Whereas three years ago, only one in eleven students tested "proficient" in science (and none ranked "advanced"), now more than half perform at those levels.

"Questions about why some birds flocked to one plant and not another led to discussions about soil composition and water cycles, weather patterns and seasons, avian migration and the tilt of the Earth in its orbit around the sun," said principal Brad Rumble.

And as lead arts and humanities teacher Robert Jeffers explains, the benefits extend beyond scientific understanding. The habitat has "instilled a profound sense of responsibility and awareness of nature," Jeffers said. "Now these kids can tell the difference between a crow and a raven, which requires cognitive skills of understanding subtleties and nuances important throughout life."

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Published on Monday, April 16, 2012 in Los Angeles Times
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