Traditionally, student learning takes place inside a classroom, within the walls of a school. Students aren’t expected to go outside during class time or get their hands dirty. One school district employee is taking steps to change that.
Allen Williams, landscape habitat specialist for PSJA ISD, says his goal is “to expose as many teachers and students to the wonders of our native flora and fauna.”
Flora is plant life. Fauna refers to animals. Both are interrelated in the Valley’s unique ecosystem and depend on future generations’ knowledge, understanding, and respect for them, which will ultimately lead to their preservation.
“Without having a relationship and an understanding of nature, which hopefully will lead to an appreciation, then there’s no reason for [students] to want to conserve it,” Williams said.
Williams has been instrumental in integrating nature and student learning through Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s Learning Landscapes Program.
“There truly is a lack of understanding of just how special and unique and important our geographical region is,” Williams said. “The biodiversity is incredible.”
The Lower Rio Grande Valley Learning Landscapes Collaborative, or LRGV LL, is a regional project among Donna ISD, Harlingen ISD, McAllen ISD, and PSJA ISD, and is made up of a network of organizations: Quinta Mazatlán, Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These entities work together to involve students, teachers, and administrators throughout Valley school districts to integrate native habitat gardens as outdoor classrooms.
Through Williams’ support and community outreach, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge has been able to impact countless Valley students, teachers, and community members through environmental education and the refuge’s mission of conservation.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association recently named Williams the National Wildlife Refuge System Advocate of the Year.
Together with teamwork from Williams’ colleagues and collaborators Melanie Flores, K-12 science coordinator for Harlingen ISD, Flor Gomez, elementary science strategist for Donna ISD, and Wendy Grohler, elementary science coordinator for McAllen ISD, the group created a new lesson plan based on life cycles.
“They got together over many Saturdays and created a 12-lesson plan that was based on life cycles that plugged in the local flora and fauna of the Valley and aligned it with the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills),” Williams said. “So we’ve got a really cool program for those third graders.”
Grohler, who died in September, was an integral part of bringing learning landscapes to students and shared her love of learning and science with teachers and students alike. Grohler served as McAllen ISD’s elementary science coordinator for the past eight years and dedicated 34 years of her life to serving the RGV community as an educator.
Susana Ramirez, elementary science curriculum coordinator for PSJA ISD, also works with Williams and said his expertise in his field is obvious.
“He’s literally like a walking encyclopedia,” Ramirez said. “He carries a little placemat. He’ll ask the kids what butterflies they want to see and then he’ll teach them what plants attract which insects. He’s very knowledgeable.”
Ramirez said PSJA ISD first started by putting learning landscapes in a couple of campuses and then joined the Friends Foundation, which supports Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and its initiatives by providing funding and grants for conservation and educational purposes.
At the beginning of implementing the learning landscapes, Ramirez said PSJA ISD was the first to start and McAllen ISD was next. She said Grohler, who was also her personal friend, was very excited and eager to bring her district on board.
“We put in endless hours. She was very dedicated to making sure that this went right. We had to work to write the curriculum and so we spent many Saturdays together. We were both late workers and would talk on the phone, sometimes past midnight, making sure that everything was right,” Ramirez said. “We were excited about the curriculum that we wrote, but more excited about how it was going to impact the students.”
Ramirez said Williams helped guide both her and Grohler in their research and knowledge of native flora and fauna.
“Allen and Santa Ana guided us a lot on choosing the right plants for what organisms we wanted to attract,” Ramirez said. “So we learned a lot and there were many times that Wendy would ask Allen to come to her house so he could help her improve her garden. That’s how excited she was.”
LRGV LL has been designated as a Conservation Wrangler by Austin-based nonprofit Texan by Nature, which was founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The conservation group’s mission, according to its website, texanbynature.org, is to “take care of the land, water and wildlife that sustain our state’s people and prosperity.”
Williams said that students’ creativity is stimulated more easily outdoors and that learning through experience helps solidify their knowledge.
“Third-graders are being tested on learning the life cycles of insects,” Williams said. “So they can learn about it in class, come out to the butterfly garden and find a caterpillar, and then find a chrysalis. Then, if they’re fortunate enough, they watch that butterfly emerge from the chrysalis. Then they’ve actually witnessed the life cycle,” he said. “So when they’re being tested on it, they’re recalling an experience that they’ve had, not something they read or watched on video.”
Laura De La Garza, official wildlife biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, is a former park ranger for Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and has also worked alongside Williams.
“I was education coordinator while I was a park ranger. I was going into the schools and I was giving lessons connected to the curriculum,” De La Garza said. “What Allen’s vision was, was for us to take that to the next level and making connections with the gardens for the students. That’s when the science coordinators came in and used their expertise to write the new curriculum.”
De La Garza said the implementation of the learning landscapes has helped students to see the bigger picture.
“We saw kids start to make connections from small to large ecosystems. They were creating a mini refuge [through the gardens] and then from that, they realized that there was a bigger refuge so it was teaching them how it’s all interconnected,” De La Garza said. “And those are the stepping stones that we wanted to replicate when we thought about this program. So the students are making these connections through their hands-on learning and then they can take those connections everywhere that they go.”
Of PSJA ISD’s 24 elementary campuses, 20 currently have learning landscapes. With Williams’ continued leadership and guidance, other participating districts’ outdoor classrooms will continue to flourish as well.