On a typical day last week, they gathered around a picnic table to plant redwood trees from kits, then scampered about the awakening spring garden following their own interests.
Aubrey Parnay, a budding lepidopterist, inspected a fennel plant for caterpillars. She and other kids collect them and then safeguard the crysalids in the classroom, releasing them only when they have emerged as butterflies.
“We do take a lot of anise swallowtails, and this is where they lay their eggs,” she explained, poking through the feathery greens. “I found two on here earlier this season.
“I love that we’re outdoors. And I really love gardening. And there are a lot of butterflies and other birds in the garden which are passing through,” she added.
In a far corner of the garden, Carmine Curtis and Cameron Tovani shoved scoops of compost into a large sieve to shift out rocks.
“Everything that’s waste goes in here. We’re just making soil,” Curtis said. The 11-year-old looks forward to this time in nature’s classroom.
“It’s fun hanging out with friends. And you get to do stuff like this.”
The experimental garden includes a homemade chicken coop, refuge for their three hens. Kids learn to take the eggshells and crush them into calcium-rich fertilizer for the soil.
Gardens, gardens everywhere
Under the guidance of Freele, students have beautified their school in multiple locations, doing much of the work themselves and learning basic landscaping skills in the process.
They tend 26 mature roses in full May bloom along a front walkway, learning how to prune and fertilize and harvesting bouquets for moms and teachers.
In front of the office they created a rock garden to attract pollinators, replacing a water-wasting lawn. Now the garden is a spring vision of salvias, ceanothus and poppies.
Students also sheet-mulched a lawn to create a low-water-use picnic area, where they planted three redwood trees, several plums and two red Japanese maples. Behind the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms is the native garden, which straddles a jogging and walking track. Kids transformed this neglected area overtaken by weeds into a path lined with examples of California native plants, from wild lilac and manzanita to elderberry, western redbud, milkweed for endangered monarch butterflies, purple sage and rush.
The school has its own rainwater catchment system where rain is saved and used to water the native garden when necessary.
“Students learn how native plants typically need less water than imported plants as natives are adapted to the long dry summers of Sonoma County,” Freele said.
She lets the kids choose the plants from four or five options she provides, accompanied by an information sheet about each plant.
“I tell them, ‘You guys study this and tell me what you think.’ I don’t want to be the expert. I want them to wonder and come to conclusions without me telling them,” said Freele, whose son attended the school four years ago and still feels pride of ownership, like so many other graduates who come back to visit.
Two resident black cats, one dubbed Chubby Plants, raised from kittens in the office, roam this little backroads Eden, getting fat on gophers and serving as emotional support pets to kids who might need the calming influence of a purring feline.
Bird feeders, bird baths, nesting boxes and owl boxes are scattered throughout the campus to accommodate the wilder animals that have found accommodation at West Side School.
There are numerous places for the kids to gather in small groups, perhaps to work on an assignment or just sit quietly and watch the birds, bees and butterflies they have invited to share their school.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or firstname.lastname@example.org. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.