Like a butterfly visiting local blooms, teacher Chéri Tondre floats among four different elementary school campuses in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) each week.
Students in the Gifted and Talented programs at Beacon Hill, Martin Luther King Academy, Hirsch, and Collins Garden elementary schools all share time with the energetic teacher. Tondre’s verve and attention make new life possible, especially in the transformation of an 11,000-square-foot courtyard at Collins Garden Elementary School. She and 15 first- through fourth-grade students have converted a Bermuda grass-infested expanse into a monarch butterfly and pollinator garden.
The Castroville native has been integrating gardening and food web lessons into her curriculum for years.
“There’ s a push to have hands-on science, for students to have real-world experience, something that ties into something real and something that matters and is important,” Tondre said. Students today simply do not engage with rote memorization and pure textbook learning the way previous generations did, she said, echoing what many other educators believe: that learning by doing is more effective.
Twenty-six of SAISD’s 92 campuses have some kind of garden classroom, with more planned in the fall, according to the district. “Gardening is a way to authentically engage the students,” said Dave Garcia, the district’s director of science.
Ruby Zavala, youth gardens coordinator at Bexar County Texas Agrilife Extension, confirmed that school gardens are on the rise, especially vegetable gardens that can serve to teach lessons about eating well and sustainability. Zavala holds teacher trainings on how to incorporate gardening into the classroom for 60-70 local teachers twice a year. Half the teachers are from schools that already have gardens, the other half are new, she said of the spring and fall sessions.
Students in Tondre’s class had already decided they wanted to create a park, but it was a three-hour workshop staged by the San Antonio River Authority as part of the 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival that motivated the creation of the pollinator garden dubbed Monarch Park at Collins Garden Elementary.
Tondre attended the River Authority’s “Pollinator Pitstop” workshop last October. Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, a wildlife migration tracking and citizen science initiative, headlined the event.
Howard, River Authority staff, and certified teacher collaborators showed local public school teachers how to use monarch butterflies in the classroom to teach science and other skills. The session provided instruction, materials, and other resources teachers might need to use monarch butterflies as the focus for learning science, problem-solving, and observation.
After she heard that the number of migrating monarchs had dramatically declined in recent years, Tondre was inspired to channel the energies earmarked for the students’ garden into a monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.
A few weeks later, Tondre secured a $2,000 grant from the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Then TBG Partners, the local branch of the award-winning landscape design firm, offered to help design the space. In early March, landscape architects Cecilia Garcia-Hours and Alexander Gonzalez visited the school to explain the roles of soil, sun, shade, and nutrients as well as the proper placement and choice of plants.
The students then met with the landscape architects to trade ideas, make lists, and produce drawings. Ultimately, Collins Garden emerged with a professionally curated pollinator habitat.
The students prepared preliminary designs and scaled drawings before Garcia-Hours and Gonzalez even arrived. “They had researched native plants and understood important design concepts, like the need for shade, activating the dining area and event lawn,” Garcia-Hours said.
With the design in place, kids, parents, and other volunteers pitched in at a March 10 Garden Build Day, installing soil, compost, and pavers to define the planted areas. Plants were secured at seasonal plant sales and local garden centers, and the Monarch Park at Collins Garden Elementary was born.
By mid-May, other classrooms from the school were taking advantage of the garden’s learning opportunities. Grace Anders’ second-grade class staged a butterfly release of an Eastern Black Swallowtail the students had raised on the garden’s rue. The kids’ irrepressible glee erupted when the butterfly sailed from its net cage. View a video here.
Beyond the collaborative gardening, designing, and building skills acquired along the way, the project presented a wholly unanticipated learning opportunity for students: how to distinguish between salad and dinner forks.
When the Nature Conservancy of Texas invited the students to be guests of honor at their annual Conservation Luncheon at the Pearl Stable on May 10, Tondre prepared a practice luncheon. She assembled plastic knives and forks to familiarize the kids with the gear and protocols associated with tables for 10. At the luncheon, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg recognized the students for Monarch Park, lauding their conservation project.
“It was fun to go, and the food was good,” said 7-year-old Lacey Lucio, one of several students who represented the Collins Garden Gifted and Talented class.
Despite the heat and recently imposed watering restrictions, Monarch Park is thriving. The weed-riddled courtyard is morphing into a diverse, inviting pollinator habitat. Goldenrod and cowpen daisies fill the sunny spots along with lantanas, milkweed, fennel, and rue. Turks’ cap takes the shadier areas, while Esperanza and Pride of Barbados are starting to show blooms as summer approaches.
Tondre is aware that the garden is a process, not a project. She has planned for the hot summer months when the students will be on vacation. Custodians and volunteers will water weekly, making sure the new plants don’t succumb to 100-degree days. When Tondre and students return next fall, they’ll reapply their energies to the garden’s cultivation, just as migrating monarchs return to the area.
So far, no monarchs have been spotted at Monarch Park, although other butterflies and caterpillars have made appearances. This fall, goldenrod and other late-season bloomers will attract monarchs and other butterflies migrating south. Tondre and her class will be ready. They plan to monitor the migrating insects for Journey North and will be tagging and recording data for the citizen science initiative Monarch Watch.