Martin Elementary students show off their Monarch habitat. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Students from San Antonio ISD, Northside ISD, Saint Mary’s Hall, Lutheran High School, and New Braunfels ISD showcased projects to promote sustainability on their campuses Monday night at Eco Centro on the San Antonio College campus.

The projects are part of a partnership between EcoRise and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to make conservation and ecology part of campus culture and academic study.

Bonham Academy, Bowden Elementary, Herff Elementary, Lamar Elementary, and Martin Elementary (NISD), and Rudder Middle School (NISD) each received a Monarch Heroes grant from the NWF to create monarch habitats at their schools.

The grants are awarded at the beginning of the year with the expectation that gardens will be in place by November to prepare for the spring Monarch migration.

The 4th and 5th graders at Martin Elementary each specialized in different aspects of gardening.

“We noticed that the [school lawn] was all dried out,” Yazmin Hernandez, 10, said, so she and her classmates used the butterfly garden as an opportunity to beautify the school. They opted for nectar plants, including Turk’s caps, pink evening primroses, and blue mistflower to maximize food for pollinators and color.

Martin Elementary School 4th Graders Ysenia Rodriguez and Yazmin Hernandez celebrate their Monarch habitat. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Anthony Fisher, 11, led tagging efforts at Martin. At the showcase, he offered pointers on holding the butterflies – “not to tight, but not too loose” – as tags with the school’s phone number were placed on the butterflies’ discal cell

In addition to the obvious science lessons, the garden projects integrate other subjects as well.

At Bowden, habitat sponsor and 3rd grade teacher Laura Ruiz used the practical elements of constructing a garden to show her students how relevant math is.

“If its relevant, the kids will get into it,” Ruiz said.

She leveraged their excitement over the hands-on garden project to motivate them to calculate area, perimeter, and the number of bricks they would need. She asked the kids to come up with a proposed budget and then conduct cost and value comparisons using internet research. Sometimes, Ruiz said, an energized discussion would break out over whether the lowest price represented the best value, or whether the cost of replacing a shoddy product would overshadow the savings.

“It was pretty great as project-based learning,” she said. 

At Lamar, 2nd grader Sophia Gonzalez, 8, and her mother Lisa Cortez Walden expanded the garden program to include a cultural component. Walden volunteers with the garden and is director of the cultural exchange program Flying Trunks.

“We use the butterfly as a metaphor for [human] migration,” Walden said.

The cultural program designed for the Monarch garden is called “From Dreams to Wisdom.” It discusses various principles of migration, including the “push and pull” factors for both butterflies and humans. Whereas Monarchs are “pulled” by the plants in the garden, people can be “pulled” by economic opportunity. Mom and daughter have taken the experience to the next step, traveling to Canada to see the summer Monarch roosts. Their exhibit at the Sustainability Showcase also included pesticide-free aphid defense systems.

Schools that choose to continue into the second year of the grant engage in citizen science by making observations and collecting data in their gardens.

Citizen science is vital to the EcoRise Audit Grants.

Lisa Cortez Walden and Sophia Gonzalez demonstrate Monarch habitat maintenance at the Sustainability Showcase. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

EcoRise awarded an Audit Grant to New Braunfels High School for a waste reduction awareness project. Students conducted an eco-audit that measured the school’s daily plastic waste and set goals to reduce the 54 pounds of waste per day by 50%.

To raise awareness, the students collected plastics to create a provocative art show demonstrating the devastating effects of plastic waste on wildlife. Students proposed placing bins around campus to create a recycling program for the next phase of the grant.

The EcoRise Audit Grants continually award $500 as projects are completed – up to $2,000 per campus – which allows students to expand successful initiatives.

Students from the Lower School at Saint Mary’s Hall also started a recycling program at their school. They performed an eco-audit and found that 34% of the school’s waste was paper and sought funds for sorting bins.

The goal of the program was evident in the science fair-style showcase. Students incorporated scientific and ecological concepts into their explanations in a natural way that showed the concepts were sinking in, taking root, and blossoming.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.