A Simple Question looks at a remarkable program that brings together school children and their teachers with community groups and agencies to undertake habitat restoration on privately-owned ranch land. It all started more than 16 years ago when Laurette Rogers, a fourth grade teacher, showed a film on endangered species to her class. Stricken by the weight of species extinction, one student plaintively asked what he and his class mates could do to save endangered species. That simple question, innocent yet profound, ignited something in Laurette that launched her and her class on an inspired voyage of discovery and transformation.
They began modestly enough — the kids decided on the obscure CA freshwater shrimp as the endangered creature they would work to save. They called themselves “The Shrimp Club.” That they didn’t know a thing about the shrimp or its habitat was hardly an obstacle. After all, they were students, and learning was what they were there to do. But they couldn’t anticipate how their declared mission would propel their learning beyond the classroom and beyond their wildest dreams.
Laurette recounts how the kids divided into teams to learn all that they could, from the natural history of this creature to the agencies responsible for their welfare and the laws affecting them. They conducted research, interviewed experts, created data bases, held bake sales, designed t-shirts, called legislators, spoke with news people, and presented in public forums and legislative hearings. In short, the effort to save the Ca freshwater shrimp became the class theme that inspired their learning for an entire year. All that was left to do was the actual saving of a species.
Paul Martin, a local rancher, received an unsolicited call from Laurette, whom he likens to an unstoppable force. He still isn’t sure why he agreed to allow a classroom of school children and their teacher on to his property to plant willows, clear obstructions, and shore up the banks of Stemple Creek. He remembers with great affection that none of them had a clue as to what they were doing, but they all had a lot of fun that day. Added to what their environmental research had taught them, the kids also learned something about agricultural life and some of the challenges Paul faced as a dairy rancher. It was the first of a swarm of such restoration excursions for kids and their teachers.
Those first shoots planted on Paul Martin’s property are now a riparian forest some twenty-five to thirty feet high. They shade a meandering stream that remains within its banks, creating ideal habitat for the shrimp that are beginning to repopulate its length. Stemple’s new vegetation has also lured twenty-five species of native birds to nest in its canopy. Researchers had originally counted only five before the children’s work. Eighteen of those nesting bird species are considered rare and endangered.
Two of the kids from the original “Shrimp Club,” John Elliott and Lucia Comnes, return to Paul’s ranch, marveling at theirs and their classmates’ handiwork. They’re amazed at how their efforts have so dramatically transformed the barren landscape. And, as we listen to them, it’s clear how the experience sixteen years ago transformed them — into articulate, passionate, capable citizens committed to making the world a better place.
The Shrimp Club itself changed, under Laurette’s leadership, into the nationally-recognized environmental education program of PRBO Conservation Science. It is known by the acronym STRAW — Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed — but that hardly conveys the magic it dusts upon all who come under its spell. What began in Laurette’s classroom that day out of despair has morphed into a transformative “place-based” science and environmental education curriculum. It transforms teachers burdened with meeting guidelines, standards and requirements who are looking for meaning, relevance, connection, and joy in their work with students. It transforms students, ordinarily confined by the four walls of the classroom, through undertaking real work with real effects on the immediate world around them and that they care about. It transforms landowners who feel cut off and even ostracized by their larger community as they work with schools and government agencies to improve their land and its natural functions. It transforms environmental groups, government agencies, and professional restorationists, who are typically isolated in their separate silos of operation, through collaboration, cooperation and cross-pollination that supports a broader, more inclusive, community initiative. And of course, it has transformed the environment.
Maybe equally remarkable, the short stretch of Stemple Creek that has been repaired and made whole has been extended beyond boundary and fence line throughout Marin and Sonoma Counties. Neighbor after neighbor, having witnessed the dramatic changes on Paul’s property over time, clamored for similar restoration work on their land. Ranchers eagerly await “restoration season,” from November through February, when STRAW brings cadres of kids, teachers, and parents out to weave the web of re-vegetated creeks across the landscape. Besides repairing the landscape, STRAW has knitted together previously fragmented community. Sixteen years later, the creeks and streams of Marin and Sonoma Counties are being reconnected into verdant corridors vibrant with color and life, and city people call their dairy rancher by his or her first name.