Imagine a place with banana, apple and other fruit trees, lush gardens growing vegetables of all shapes and sizes, chickens scratching, and burbling water tanks where fish produce nutrients for the dangling roots of plants, which, in turn, clean the water for the fish. It’s an oasis of calm and green, just steps away from busy city streets, where children learn not only about the beautiful garden, but where the garden – and learning in and about the wider physical, outdoor world – colors every subject they study, as well as how they learn. For example, when a first grade teacher teaches students to read the word “apple,” and shares a book about the fruit…a master gardener plucks a few ripe orbs off a nearby tree for the students to taste. This “Garden of Possibilities” exists…and it’s the bedrock of the Carthay School of Environmental Studies Magnet.
Carthay Center Elementary School opened in 1924 to serve the Carthay Center neighborhood near the intersection of Olympic and Crescent Heights Blvd. But as the idea of “school choice” took hold over the last 20 years or so, area parents found themselves presented with what often seems like at least 31 flavors of educational options for their children. Carthay, like many other plain old “vanilla” neighborhood schools, often got lost in the mix, unable to keep up with the marketing and branding that make so many specialty schools seem more…well, “special” in some way than the neighborhood school that’s been sitting down the block, educating neighborhood kids for nearly a century. And enrollments declined.
But in 2006, some visionary and ambitious Carthay parents started a garden. And not just any garden, but one they would grow and nurture and integrate into the school’s culture and programs so completely that two years ago, plain old Carthay Center Elementary School became Carthay School of Environmental Studies Magnet, a place where, according to Garden Chair (and founder) Teresa Dahl, Common Core educational standards for English Language Arts and Math are still taught, but now in new ways — very often with an environmental focus, and often outdoors, “teaching and giving [students] time to become observers of the outdoor world.”
Title I Coordinator Lela Choi says that since the conversion to the Environmental Studies Magnet, many of Carthay’s teachers are new, and were specifically attracted to the school, its theme, and the chance to develop their own new curricula. Lesson plans are based on a combination of Common Core standards, District curriculum, partnerships with organizations such as the Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, and the teachers’ own creative touches. Teachers also are now assisted by Los Angeles Master Gardeners, and specialists from the STAR Education program, who teach science and gardening classes.
“We like to do lessons where the students themselves are in charge of their learning,” says Choi. And that includes a lot of project-based learning, along with activities such as a huge annual Science Fair, where students drive their own learning by researching, gathering, synthesizing, articulating and sharing what they learn.
The result has been a successful turnaround in many ways.
According to Dahl, “the greatest benefit of the magnet is having a common theme folks buy into and share. I really think it has dramatically helped the school’s culture — it has really helped put a really can-do, positive energy into the school…a much more collaborative culture around a common theme. It is a happy place.”
PTA President Tyson Roberts agrees. “The conversion to the magnet has taken what was already great about the school (the warm community, the strong faculty, the garden and garden science program and other community-supported extra-curricular programs) and made it shine a little more, which has led to more local support for the school, leading to a positive feedback loop.”
Magnet schools draw students from across the city. But unlike many other neighborhood schools converted to magnet or charter programs in recent years, Carthay has also taken care to maintain and even enhance its relationship to its home community. Children who live within Carthay’s traditional attendance boundaries are given first priority in the enrollment lottery conducted through LAUSD’s Choices program…and part of a recent round of garden and campus enhancements was done specifically with the goal of opening the campus to the community as a park every Sunday.
“The idea is that the school be a model for what every public school in LA Unified should be,” says Dahl. “A hub for education for the entire community, a park that is accessible to neighbors, and a demonstration site for sustainable land management and habitat restoration. Schools need to be beautiful places for children – green and rich with life – not covered in asphalt, chain-link or retrofits made without any consideration for adding aesthetic value for children: galvanized steel, hot surfaces, prison-like lighting, spiked fences, etc. A safe school is one that is shared and open to its community, and therefore has many caretakers. We hope that Carthay demonstrates to its students and staff every day that the work of educating and caring for them and each other is the greatest value we all share.”
Add a supportive new principal – Sharon Hall-Johnson – along with ongoing partnerships with prestigious organizations such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (one of its BioSCAN stations at the school discovered a new breed of insect now named after Carthay), community workshops and events on environmental themes, and some hot press, and those old declining enrollments have turned around. According to Roberts, “The magnet has had a dramatic effect on enrollment and demographics. Two years ago, we were down to two classes for most grades, and now we are up to three classes for most grades. We actually have FOUR kindergarten classes now.” Ethnic and economic diversity have increased as well, he says.
Although overall enrollments are up, however, one thing the school could use more of this year is fourth graders. It’s the one grade where comparatively low enrollments could cause the school to combine a couple of classes and lose a teacher if numbers don’t come up by “norm day” later this month. So if you have a fourth grader still searching for a unique learning experience, it’s not too late to consider Carthay School of Environmental Studies Magnet. Contact the school at (323) 935-8173 for more information.
In the meantime, success breeds success. Space has been cleared and asphalt removed to add another 5,000 square feet to the school’s garden area (doubling its already large size)…and plans are in the works to open a weekly farmer’s market at the school this spring…which should bring even more community members back to the Garden of Possibilities.
Carthay School of Environmental Studies Magnet
6351 W. Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048