January 20, 2022

TREES Takes Root at Topanga Elementary



TREES Takes Root at Topanga Elementary

Topanga Elementary School teachers learn about oak woodlands as they explore the world outside of the classroom on the nature path behind the campus.

Building on a legacy of environmental care, the teachers and students at Topanga Elementary School have begun a new phase of formally engaging with the world outside the classroom doors with a new program, for the Topanga Resource Ecosystem Exploration for Students (TREES).

Who knew that the eight acres purchased for $20,000 in 1951 that became Topanga Elementary School would become such a precious and unique educational opportunity? By setting aside almost four acres on the hill above the built campus as a nature reserve, our forward thinking predecessors set the stage for some wonderful learning opportunities.

Starting in the 1980s, parents, classes and Eagle Scouts collaborated to build the wonderful outdoor amphitheater and created a formal Nature Trail, complete with signs and stops highlighting some of the unusual and interesting plants and processes happening “in the woods.”

All of these efforts set the stage for the TREES program, which started with teacher training in March funded by the Santa Maria Trails Mitigation funds.

Developed by Elizabeth Montgomery, biologist and educator with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) and Andre Sanchez, RCD Watershed Steward, the program is working with teachers to directly connect students to the campus environment by providing focused, unique, grade-level projects that will become the signature environmental education theme for the year.

Teachers are being supported with background information on the Topanga Creek watershed, lesson plans and field guides to help them develop ways to integrate the world outside with the world inside the classroom, all in keeping with state science standards, encouraging both individual exploration and service learning.

The kick-off hike took teachers through the grassland, chaparral and oak woodland to the top of the hill with views of the ocean and Palos Verdes Peninsula in the distance.

“I felt like I was at the top of the world! Can you imagine any other school where you could do this?” said Linda Handler, Kindergarten teacher.

Wildflowers bloomed and hawks soared overhead allowing the teachers a chance to practice using binoculars.

“It’s easy to forget what we are surrounded by,” noted second-grade teacher Sondra Tapper.

Guides Lizzy and Andre pointed out a wood rat nest hidden in a large oak tree and wild cucumber vine laden with spiny space alien seed pods overwhelming a nearby shrub, a sight that impressed Kindergarten teacher Roger Harrell.

Visiting all of the Nature Trail provided the teachers with a unique professional development meeting that will inspire projects in math, writing and art, as well as science that integrate the core curriculum with the natural world.

All too quickly the hour-long training came to an end.

“Taking time to remember the uniqueness of our campus and receiving instruction from experts, was invaluable,” said Amy Weisberg, Transitional Kindergarten teacher.

First-grade teacher Jen Hoffman enthused, “That was the best professional development meeting ever!”

To help jump start the effort to more consciously weave environmental observations into the school program, the RCDSMM team is providing hands-on lessons for each grade level this spring.

The Kindergarteners learned about their watershed, making it rain and watching how pollutants and trash move through the watershed model, to be followed up with making bird feeders from recycled objects to take home.

First graders will hike the trail in search of native plants and learn to identify them.

Second graders will visit Lower Topanga State Park to help with the spring amphibian surveys to monitor how our local frogs are surviving the drought.

Third graders will start a nest survey of birds living on campus and decide on what kind of bird box is needed to support our local feathered friends.

Oak woodlands will lure fourth graders up the trail to begin monitoring the growth and ecology of these amazing trees. Fifth graders will watch plant transpiration in action as they master the complexities of photosynthesis.

The plan is for these lessons to repeat year after year, slowly building a database documenting changes to the ecology of the campus over time. Already the teachers are brainstorming on how to develop a web-based computer hub that students could use to input and analyze the data so that yearly trends could be examined as each successive class contributes their observations over time.

Principal Steve Gedimen is very excited about this new effort.

“I feel that, thanks to this new partnership between our school and the RCDSMM team, Topanga is beginning an ‘Environmental Science Renaissance.’ The seeds we are planting this year will grow and make Topanga Elementary School the place for outdoor learning at the elementary school level.”