Oregon Class Learns That `X' Is for Xeriscape

ENVIRONMENTAL education in teacher Tim Brandy's grade-school class began with a lesson in Greek. Before the fourth and fifth graders could start their "xeriscape" project, they had to learn what the word means: landscaping with native plants that don't need artificial watering. ("Xero" is Greek for dry.)

Since then, the design, construction, and maintenance of a xeriscape outside the Walker Elementary School in Ashland, Ore., has involved a multitude of skills: Math to lay out the architectural plan and figure out how many cubic feet of cardboard, sawdust, and bark was needed to turn the lawn into rich soil. Biology to learn which trees, shrubs, and ground covers would thrive in a region that doesn't see rain for months at a time (and also provide habitat for animals).

And math again to solicit funding from local school officials and the Water Conservation Department. Language skills to present the plan to school administrators and also to bone up on spelling for the "Spell-a-thon" that helped raise money.

Then there was vision to work on something that will take several years to complete. And persistence in the upkeep of a project that should last for generations.

"It'll be fun bringing my kids here after it's done," said Nakia McCullough after the afternoon's weeding had been done. Of the 40,000-square-foot plan begun a year and a half ago, the first phase of 10,000 square feet is well on its way to completion.

Mr. Brandy tries to include the environment in much of what he teaches. He takes his class to the Oregon coast for several days each spring to learn about the biology, chemistry, and physics of oceans. His school has a 20-year contract with the United States Forest Service to rehabilitate a 15-acre clear-cut. This includes planting fir, pine, and cedar seedlings and checking their survival rates.

"Our teacher loves nature - he's a nature freak," says Shannon Lilienthal. "And I plan to be one when I grow up," adds her friend Dylan St. Clair-Bates.

Mr. Brandy calls himself an advocate for the environment but says he's careful to present all sides on controversial matters. The class talks about the impact of environmental protection on local jobs, for example. When they were discussing the spotted owl (which lives in the forests near here), he invited a lumber-mill worker to talk to the children.

"I really try to keep my values out of it," he says. "And one of the things I really try not to do is put children in conflict with their parents."

"I also don't want to create a bunch of pessimists [regarding environmental problems]," he adds. "I want to give them the opportunity to say `I can make a difference as an adult.' "

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