A phenomenal group of teachers at Balboa and Downtown Continuation High Schools created a program called the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC). They teach students who are significantly underserved from low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. The students, who often have failed in other school programs, are flourishing through WALC, with 90% of the Balboa students going on to college, and 30% into the UC system. A central piece of WALC curriculum involves weekly field trips to McLaren Park. Here the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s Youth Stewardship Program leads WALC in environmental education and habitat restoration activities to foster an understanding of the interconnections of the McLaren Park Watershed.
“I take each faithful step
in mother nature’s heart
ready to let this world
that changed my life
carry me upstream.”
– Marisa Miranda, WALC, Downtown High School
A young woman is thinking of the earth, of hands and knees covered with soil as she sows and counts indigenous scrub and grasses. A nearby park’s ravines and hillsides welcome freshly planted lupine, willow, and sagebrush. The last of a year-long stream of data that will be used to shed light on fire ecology and native plant species has been collected from a hillside burn area.
A young man is reliving memories of the vista atop exposed roots of an ancient mountain, of first imagining the slow laying down of once great peaks around him. In a desert six hundred miles away, those rocks continue to weather into dust surrounded by the flowering thorns he had so carefully studied.
A teacher is pondering an unforgettable facet of a place she has once again revisited: that puzzling outcropping, that shallow pond inside the oasis, those downed trees strewn about that wetly trickling canyon walled with ferns. In her cabinet at school, last spring’s bedrock lessons and themes are waiting to be reworked.
Right now any number of students, graduates, and teachers from (WALC) are having such reveries. In WALC, experiences like these are the central, organizing, and driving force of school. Nature is the one model that consistently and effectively teaches both students and teachers what they need to learn. Whether it is how to pick up the pieces of one’s life after a personal tragedy, or exploring one’s forgotten cultural roots and untold history; whether it is grasping how pressure and heat operate within a weather system, or simply comprehending the difficult text of numerous books and novels, there is nothing that can be learned more effectively than lessons observed and experienced first-hand in the natural world. When the educational model is the earth, then school is about becoming aware of the whole. Threads connecting history, literature, science, art, technology, and math are explored; students develop not just academically but emotionally, spiritually, personally.
In two inner-city high schools in San Francisco, this small but innovative and comprehensive program has been transforming the educational experiences of at-risk and disadvantaged youth for nearly seven years. If nature is indeed the best teacher, then our students at Balboa High School and Downtown Continuation High School, having struggled with educational and social inequities for years, are the ones who now need and deserve her tutelage most. And if indeed the outcome of our environmental struggles ultimately rests on the empowerment of people who live in communities that bear the severest brunt of environmental degradation, then the earth desperately needs our students to become reacquainted and familiar with her workings. This consciousness, and the shared memories in some of the most beautiful places in the world that inspire genuine affection amongst us, lend a sense of conviction to WALC’s work, a solemn but joyful awareness of its importance.