Kids for the Bay

Article excerpt

A condominium developer would die for the view from Misao Brown's light-filled, plant-festooned third-grade classroom at Paden Elementary School in Alameda, CA. Eight-foot-tall windows look onto the sailboat masts of the town's nearby marina and the waters of the San Francisco Bay, just yards away. On a crisp autumn afternoon, the Bay looks pristine, a blue-silver expanse stretching for miles to the distant San Mateo hills in the west.

But all is not well with the Bay ecosystem. Within the water lurk all kinds of environmental dangers. As guest teacher Kristina Cervantes is explaining to the children of Brown's class, litter is jeopardizing the health of the Bay --paints and solvents are poured into storm drains, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and plastic bags are washed by rains into the bay, and from there are carried to the Pacific Ocean.

"A sea lion will grow, right? It can get real big, 300 pounds or so," Cervantes says, as she holds up a plastic six-pack ring. "But does plastic grow? No. And then this gets caught around [a sea lion's] neck." Cervantes shows a picture of a sea lion wearing a six-pack ring like a choke collar.

Her presentation is part of a 20-hour curriculum in which she educates students about watershed ecosystems, the importance of environmental protection, and the many ways that they and their families can help preserve the environment. The environmental education program is organized by Kids for the Bay, a Berkeley, CA-based organization that for 15 years has successfully raised thousands of young children's ecological awareness.

"We provide long-term, in-depth, multiple-experience programs to give students reasons to care about the environment," says Mandi Billinge, founder and executive director of Kids for the Bay, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project. "We go into the schools and work with them in their own environment. We train the teachers so that they get to learn alongside of their students, and they love that."

Billinge, a native of Great Britain, started doing environmental instruction around the UK's Humber Estuary, where she taught kids about their local environment. After moving to the US, she decided to launch a similar program focused on the San Francisco Bay. Kids for the Bay began with Billinge writing the curriculum at her kitchen table and carrying bags of equipment on the bus to teach at schools the next morning.

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Today, Kids for the Bay has an 11-person staff, and works with schools throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The organization, funded by city grants and private philanthropies, reaches 4,000 students and 200 teachers a year. In 2005, the EPA recognized the group as one of the top environmental education programs in the US.

Kids for the Bay's signature project is its Watershed Action Program, in which the instructors combine classroom exercises, field trips to local creeks and bay habitats, and service projects to get children to think about the importance of preserving healthy ecosystems. As part of the program, kids do a survey of litter in their neighborhood and talk with their parents about the proper disposal of paints, car washing soaps, and household hazardous waste. In addition to the Watershed Action Program, Kids for the Bay hosts a science summer camp, runs a recycling and composting curriculum, and organizes training seminars for teachers so they can keep the lessons going.

The centerpiece of Kids for the Bay's approach is the idea of "education through action." The curriculum always includes a project so children can help defend the environment. Many classes participate in trash cleanups. Some groups have helped stencil "Drains to the Bay" warnings around storm drains. A few classes have built native plant gardens at their campuses. Recently, a class painted a large mural depicting the bay ecosystem.

These sorts of experiences, say Kids for the Bay instructors, are vital to getting children involved in creative problem-solving and critical thinking. …