By Natasha Freudmann, Class of 2017
On a rocky plateau overlooking miles and miles of the Pacific Ocean, Ojai Valley School students crouched over hardened soil, shovels in hand. With quiet focus, they overturned clumps of earth, creating new homes for plants native to the Channel Islands chain, just off the Ventura County coastline.
It was a long way to go to till some soil. But this was not your run-of-the-mill gardening project.
The students, members of OVS’ Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, sailed in February to Anacapa Island in the first of what will be a series of excursions to Channel Islands National Park for environmental education and restoration projects. Fifth graders made the trip in March. This week, middle school students will depart for Santa Cruz Island to continue this field work and the senior class will anchor these projects with a trip in late May.
In partnership with the national park, OVS earlier this school year was awarded a $4,000 Hands on the Land grant, part of a national effort to connect students, teachers and volunteers with public lands and waterways. OVS was one of 22 institutions nationwide to receive the grant, which came about through a collaborative process between parents, the park service and the high school and middle school staffs.
Funded by the the National Environmental Education Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, the grant in coming months will be used by students and teachers on both campuses to access the islands and use them as living laboratories, tackling projects including working on-site in nurseries, removing invasive vegetation, and gathering and compiling plant restoration data.
“This grant rapidly advances our goal to partner with Channel Islands National Park on long-term restoration and research projects,” said AP Environmental Science teacher John Wickenhaeuser, who as the school’s director of technology and sustainability spearheaded the grant-writing effort.
“With this funding nearly 100 students in grades 5 through 12 will travel to the islands this school year, to remove invasive species, plant natives and learn from expert field biologists,” Wickenhaeuser added. “It is an extraordinary opportunity for our students and our school to learn, participate, and make a huge difference on the truly special Channel Islands.”
On the school’s first visit to the islands as part of the grant, students embarked on a mission to learn about Dudleya, a plant native to Anacapa Island, one of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park. The plant, like many others native to the island, has been crowded out by invasive ice plant, which was brought to the island in the mid-20th century for landscaping and erosion control.
After hours of education and labor to transplant the Dudleya, more than 100 new plants were in the ground. Despite the hard work, students were enthusiastic about the project – especially with the added benefit of working and learning outdoors.
“It’s awesome to be out of the classroom and having fun out here,” said senior Jack Gentry, who joined eight other Advanced Placement students on the inaugural service project. “I’m super glad I had this opportunity.”
Lower Campus parent Annie Little, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, accompanied the AP class to the island. Little spoke earlier this year as part of the school’s Guest Lecture series about her work restoring sea birds, including the bald eagle, to the Channel Islands, and she was instrumental in connecting OVS to the current service project.
“With the Fish and Wildlife Service we try and encourage kids to come out and get involved with restoration projects,” Little said. “We have a whole program of connecting kids to nature. This is part of that mission and a great opportunity for the OVS kids to get out and do some hands-on work.”
Not only will the grant provide great opportunities for students to learn about the islands and their ecosystems, its objectives dovetail nicely with the AP Environmental Science curriculum and advance the school’s long-standing commitment to hands-on learning.
“I think it’s all about experiential learning,” Little said. “You guys aren’t just sitting in a classroom learning about restoration, you’re actually doing it yourselves. You’ve experienced [restoration] so it provides you with a great learning opportunity. It brings more of the textbook into real life and you get to really experience it.”
Monique Navarro, education coordinator for Channel Islands National Park, couldn’t agree more. Moreover, she thinks the visits could help ignite in some students a passion to pursue environmental education and activism in the future.
“I think [this] can inspire students to think of different opportunities for what to study at university and beyond, and what different job opportunities are out there,” Navarro said. “[It can] also get students to appreciate and to protect these resources, so it’s our responsibility to preserve and protect them.”
The grant funds will be available through the end this school year. Future activities include a fifth-grade trip to Anacapa Island, a middle school backpacking trip to Santa Cruz Island, and a senior trip to Santa Cruz Island.
While school officials ponder future uses, the focus will remain the same.
On the windswept plateau at Anacapa Island late last month, senior Ally Feiss worked with several partners to scoop out the stubborn earth and plug in Dudleya, creating in about an hour a field of light-green succulents, the color of green beans, that had not been there previously.
Afterward, students worked in pairs to lug bulky water jugs from plant to plant, giving each of the new island natives a long drink.
“It was really surprising looking back that we as a group had done so much in such a little amount of time,” Ally said. “Aside from the fact that we are doing island education and restoration, it was nice to see how a little work goes a long way.”
Indeed, on this little island, the OVS students made a big difference – strengthening the habitat for native species and paving the way for future restoration work.
“The purpose of the grant is to provide an opportunity for kids to get experience out in nature and have a positive impact on the environment,” Little said. “This restoration project is important for trying to recover the island and the island habitat, and it provides the OVS kids a great opportunity for real, hands-on restoration.”
Click here to see photos from the 5th grade trip to Anacapa Island in March.