On an Urban River, Intensive Learning During Vacation Time

Students with the advantage of learning during periods when they are not in school–such as summer vacations–typically reinforce and build on their academic skills. Recognizing this, the CES Center in Los Angeles saw a unique learning opportunity for high school students in the two-month “off-track” intervals created by the city’s year-round schooling policy. They designed and piloted an ongoing field-based project called the River School, which uses the Los Angeles River to offer low-income students an intensive experience in river stewardship and scientific watershed protocols.

Collaborating with Friends of the Los Angeles River and the University of California at Los Angeles, CES piloted the student research project with over 150 students from Canoga Park High School. Guided by environmental professionals, teachers, and college interns, student teams spent four days monitoring water quality and assessing and restoring riparian habitats in their industrialized neighborhood.

As part of the pilot project, CES coaches developed a curriculum and River Guide suitable for use from kindergarten through grade twelve, which meshes neatly with the science protocols of GLOBE, the Federal program for student environmental science, and with national and state mathematics and science standards.

“We saw students begin developing the confidence, knowledge, and connections necessary to aspire to higher learning and professional careers in science and environmental studies,” said Sarah Starr, who directs the initiative. “They thrived on the individual instruction, and they learned to collaborate in small groups to solve problems, think critically, and make decisions.” The Center is currently seeking funds to establish the program as four six-week courses offered to Los Angeles high school students during their staggered vacation times.

When the field course is launched, Starr said, it will also increase these students’ role in their city’s future. “They tell us environmental sustainability is one of their major concerns for their future,” she noted. “This river is the center of a 625-square-mile urban watershed, including the city’s storm-drain system.” With California’s new watershed protection mandate, she said, “kids can participate at the design and decision-making stage of renewing a vital natural resource.”