Environmental science lab to bloom at inner city school

by Laura Hunter, Environmental Health Coalition
ast month, the San Diego Unified School District and Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) unveiled plans for an Outdoor Environmental Learning Center located adjacent to Gompers Secondary School. The Lincoln/Gompers Cluster Schools Outdoor Environmental Learning Lab will create a unique environment for the pursuit of scientific studies and for experiences with nature for the 8,000 students in nine elementary and secondary schools in Southeast San Diego.
The 3.6-acre abandoned field, owned by the San Diego Unified School District, will be converted into a fertile field that will grow young scientists for the future. Plans for the Outdoor Laboratory include a restoration of native plant communities and construction of an outdoor classroom and alternative technology center. San Diego Unified School District Board Member Shirley Weber stated, "The Outdoor Lab will give our students relevant hands-on experiences with important environmental issues. It will also prepare them for the job market of the future."
The Lab will include a butterfly/hummingbird garden, amphitheater, composting area, plant propagation nursery, freshwater marsh habitat, solar clock, and demonstration areas for chaparral, coastal sage, riparian, and wetland native habitat plantings. At the Lab, students will learn about environmentally sustainable technologies and practices such as solar and wind power, xeriscaping, organic gardening, composting, native habitat restoration, and integrated pest management, which will protect their health and the planet at the same time.
The Lincoln/Gompers Cluster schools are Chollas, Horton, Johnson, Kennedy, Knox, Mead, and Webster Elementary and Gompers Secondary School and Lincoln Preparatory School. Students at these schools represent many ethnic and cultural groups that are currently under-represented in the sciences at universities and in the science professions.
The Outdoor Lab was initially conceived by EHC, a leading local, grass-roots organization and José Jones, a teacher at Gompers Secondary. The project was formed to meet the educational needs of students of color and the environmental challenges of pollution and polluted runoff.
The project will bring together science students and environmental consulting firms for hands-on training in air, soil and water monitoring. The Outdoor Lab will also give young students the chance to conduct hands-on activities for science fair and classroom projects and the chance to develop skills they can use forever. According to Jones, "Science fairs are important because students that are successful in the district and county science fairs usually have increased access to summer science internships and college scholarships. The Lab will improve the quality of science fair projects."
Several government, corporate, and private organizations have joined forces with the School District and EHC to support and build the Laboratory. The majority of the funding has been provided by an Environmental Enhancement Mitigation Grant in the amount of $204,000 from the California Department of Transportation. Gary Gallegos, District Director of Transportation, CalTrans District 11, spoke in support of the project stating: "It's important for the school, it's important for the students, and it's important for the future of the community."
However, $100,000 in matching funds are required to complete the Lab. A major gift from Kelco, a Division of Merck and Co., Inc., was announced at the groundbreaking. "Kelco is proud to be a partner in the Lincoln/Gompers Outdoor Lab," said Bob Durgan, Director of Public Affairs announcing his company's donation of $10,000, "Without relevant scientific training and education, the ability of our company to compete globally is threatened. We're challenging other local industries to join us in this important effort."
The San Diego Chapter of the Audubon Society donated $1,500 for the hummingbird and butterfly garden. According to Norma Sullivan, Conservation Chair of the local Audubon Chapter, "The Outdoor Lab will give us the opportunity to fulfill the Audubon Society's goal of helping urban children learn to appreciate the role that birds and other wildlife play in our ecosystem. I'm looking forward to being out in the field with students." Commercial Press donated printing for the brochure, and the National Civilian Community Corps is donating both their education and construction services.
Currently, the site is highly degraded, burns often, and is overrun with exotic and weed species. The site contains a ditch which channels runoff from a residential area north of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway and a portion of the highway itself. The proximity of the site to a major freeway and the drainage through the site can be used to demonstrate many of the negative impacts of human activity on the natural environment including air and water pollution. The experiments in the habitat areas and at the alternative technology center will demonstrate the effectiveness and limitations of humans to protect these resources in a modern technological society.
The bulk of the site improvement will be to restore native plant communities to the area. Several different habitats will be created to help students and community members understand the relationships among the various ecosystems and the importance of protecting remaining habitat. The restored habitat is expected to provide food and shelter for resident and migratory bird species, insects, small mammals and reptiles.
Habitat areas are small and are intended to be used as demonstration and learning laboratories and are designed to minimize human impact. There will be Coastal Sage Scrub, Wetlands, uplands, and Chaparral habitat areas planted.
One unique feature of the lab will be a constructed wetlands that will be designed to prevent sedimentation and to detoxify polluted runoff coming from an upstream neighborhood and a section of the highway that drains into the Lab site. Laura Hunter, Director of the Environmental Health Coalition's Clean Bay Campaign stated, "This kind of low-tech, vegetative solution to treat and prevent polluted runoff in upstream areas will help improve the quality of runoff entering San Diego Bay. Here the students will learn that what you do in the watershed of the Bay, affects the Bay directly." This constructed wetlands will be showcased at the site and tested for use at other sites in San Diego.
The community fundraising campaign was also kicked off at the news conference with a goal of $20,000. Fifth through 10th graders in the Lincoln/Gompers Cluster schools will be creating the art for an educational and fundraising calendar to educate students and parents about the Outdoor Lab and the problem of polluted runoff. Cash and in-kind donations are continuing to be sought to complete this project. The first 100 donations to the Lab will be recognized at the site by a walkway tile designed and made by school students.
The Lab construction is expected to be completed by Spring of 1995. The habitat restoration will be an ongoing process over the next several years. Please contact EHC (235-0281) to support this vital project.