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Riverview STEM Academy: New Voices at the Table

As told by: Community Forester Matt Buland

June 28, 2016

Every Community Shade project starts with who, when, what, where and why. A great deal of thought goes into who needs to be at our initial meeting. When we work with schools, that group usually consists of a school district rep, a maintenance rep, and onsite representation often including the principal, a teacher and/or a parent volunteer.

My first meeting with Riverview STEM Academy, an elementary school in Rancho Cordova, was quite different. I shook hands with Principal Tony Peterson and before we got too far into the introductions he said, “let’s head to the classroom.”

“Classroom?”, I thought to myself. “Is he expecting a Presentation?” Fear swept over me, a bead of sweat gathered and my heart raced as if I was running on foot against Secratariat in the Kentucky Derby. To my relief Principal Tony went inside the classroom and I was not expected to follow. Soon, three bright, shining, and smiling 5th graders with a flood of questions no 30 minute meeting could come close to satisfying, emerged.

Ellie, Jackson and Jazmine (the obvious stakeholders not typically invited to the party), Principal Tony and I looked out at that space that seems to exist at every school in Sacramento and maybe the world. That patch of no man’s land where the molten asphalt playground meets the patchy green and brown turf leading to the ballfields. With a chance to fix this glaring problem, in one school at least, I activated full Community Forester mode and began to go over the possibilities.

As all good stakeholders should be, the students were engaged, asked great questions and were involved in each and every decision made that day. Out of this meeting came three big areas of importance; site layout, tree protection and education.

It was clear the students approached this project with the understanding that this was their legacy. Something tangible they could leave for the younger current and future students before they jumped into the wild world of middle school. They described the type of activity and play that is most common on the playground and offered the suggestion to add a mini-grove of smaller trees to the planned row of shade trees so the younger students could better enjoy their favorite game of hide and seek. A novel concept my adult brain just never would have thought of.

The students were adamant about caring and protecting the trees once they were in the ground. Plans for tree care and maintenance, especially during the summer, were discussed. They expressed great concern that these trees in the middle of prime play area, could be accidentally damaged. Furthermore, they were painfully aware of the issue of vandalism as a few trees had been damaged on their campus in the recent past. Principal Tony suggested a competition to create plans for the best protective tree stake design to ensure the trees would be able to grow strong and extra shady. This created great excitement and energy, and in the end three students were chosen and received awards for their creativity, clarity and engineering acumen.

It was decided that all students would have a hand in this project so everyone could take part in bettering their school, would be more aware and caring towards the trees, and would learn the many benefits trees provide. Yet the 5th graders were keenly aware of the differences in abilities between 5th graders and Kindergarteners and the challenges that created. It was clear to all that education would be fundamentally important in overcoming these challenges and that it would be best that students deliver that education. What better way to learn than from your peers?

With their limited planting experience a demonstration planting and training was in order. I arrived with tools and a nice healthy Zelkova tree and ran into a wall of ipads and cameras as if I was about to conduct a press conference on the steps of city hall. It was explained that every 4th grader at Riverview learns how to film, edit and produce videos. With my planting guidance and the input of our directors in training we planted the Zelkova. The students learned how to successfully plant a tree, captured the moment and created an amazing video which they, with the help of their fellow 5th grade classmates, shared and taught to the rest of the school.

On planting day over 100 students came out to plant 15 beautiful shade trees. They smiled, they learned and it was clear they would carry that experience with them forever. The 5th grade, through their representation from beginning to end, energetically took on the roles of designers, organizers, educators and leaders and learned valuable skills beyond simply planting a tree and gained confidence they will carry as they progress through life. I learned more than this blog could reasonably contain but most importantly that there is so much more than just getting a tree in the ground. What an amazing experience! Thank you Riverview STEM Academy.Riverview Planting #2