Protecting Plants and Animals on the Laguna Trail | Community

You might think the question about how you protect the plants and animals on the Laguna Trail was posed by the Laguna Foundation or perhaps a group of citizens concerned about the environment and climate change. But you would be wrong. This article is about students at La Fiesta University Elementary School (UELF) in the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District. This is their project this year in this magnetic school which is based on project-based learning (APP).

According to their website, UELF is a partnership between the district and Sonoma State University. It was founded in 2013 by a group of SSU faculty, district teachers, administrators, and local parents. They were passionate about the hands-on experiential learning that is promoted through project-based education. The partnership remains strong, as evidenced by the many SSU interns who work with district teachers at UELF as they earn their teaching credentials. Many of these interns end up becoming teachers in the district because of these internship experiences.

UELF, like many schools, is still recovering from the effects of COVID-19 and related school closures and is transitioning to online learning due to the pandemic. Teacher Jessica Gilleran said there was a “loss of momentum due to COVID” and they were “just getting that momentum back”. As in other campuses, children are excited to return to school with their friends and classmates. UELF, as a magnet school, attracts children from across the district. Parents who believe that project-based learning is the right solution for their children opt for the program through intra-district transfers. The student body is very diverse with 48% of students from the Latin American community.

Each year, the children carry out a class project. Since the lessons are student-centered, children choose their topic for their project. They use an inquiry model, asking scientific questions to research, plan, develop, and present their projects to families, staff, classmates, and sometimes even the community. A good project is one that relates to all subjects to include science, math, reading, writing, art, and presentation skills as examples. Normally each class will have a unique project although they may connect to a common school theme. This year was different in that children from five grades, ranging from second to fifth grade, chose to work together on the same project.

The project they chose was “How can we educate our community about protecting plants and animals on the Laguna Trail”. Gilleran, a fifth-grade teacher with more than 29 years of experience in the district, thinks this is the “first time so many grade levels have come together” in their project choice. Gilleran, a Californian by birth, grew up in Fort Bragg and now lives in Santa Rosa. She graduated from SSU’s credentialing program in 1991 and began teaching in the district in 1993. She came to UELF from Thomas Page Academy in Cotati. This is his fifth year at the UELF.

Gilleran said teacher Frankie Kellogg shared her PBL project that she developed during her summer workshop with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA and Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-Wet) have a partnership with UELF. B-Wet, an environmental education program, promotes experiential learning for K-12 students and related professional development for teachers. UELF teachers embraced it and worked together to shape the concept to suit their classes.

Gilleran also praised Michael Kaupman. His grandson is in his class and he was instrumental in coordinating with SSU to have interns lead hikes on the Laguna Trail. This trail is part of the upper reaches of the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetland complex. The trailhead is about a half mile from the school campus. “I see they have such a positive experience when they’re out.” said Gilleran. This project allows that; and connects them to their environment.

In addition to selecting their project, the children chose the small group they wanted to be part of. For example, do they want to focus on plants, birds, fish, predators (mammals), butterflies, herbivores or maybe things like salamanders, frogs, newts or reptiles. Then, during their walks, they use the scientific tool of observation, recording these observations in their nature journals. Using their artistic skills, they created posters that were displayed along the trail to educate the community who also walk this trail. Right now, children are trying to decide how to “springboard” their discoveries. Maybe a mural, an exhibit, or some other type of presentation. Whatever they choose is sure to be educational.

Gilleran said that this project is “very motivating for the children”, that “it’s a win/win”. She reports that “they push each other” while learning to work together in small groups. She also said it made them “feel like they were part of something bigger.” Well done, kids! Thank you for allowing us to share your project with our community.