Conservation Goes to School
At Children’s Conservation Academy, nature walks are a regular feature of the curriculum. The catch is, the school is located in urban San Diego. But on their way to the neighborhood park, the classes identify indigenous plants and flowers, scope out microecosystems with their magnifying glasses, observe which objects in the everyday environment come from natural sources and learn the importance of recycling.
“The kids are so excited about conservation ,” says Nicole Decatur ’92, founder and director of the K-5 charter school, which opened last August. “It’s quite new to many of them, learning where everything comes from and where everything goes.”
The mission of the Academy is to “to develop and conserve a child’s mind and body through academic excellence, character education, art, physical fitness and community service, all based on a theme of environmental conservation.”
Located in one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, the Academy provides disadvantaged children with the opportunity to get a solid education and learn about San Diego’s natural resources. In addition to studying traditional subjects like math and science, students take frequent conservation-based field trips and participate in community service projects in the school and at local beaches and parks. The school also hosts guest programs sponsored by organizations like the Audubon Society and the San Diego Zoo’s conservation department.
The Academy is sponsored by the Children’s Conservation Fund, a nonprofit agency dedicated to conservation-based education for children, which was founded by Decatur in 2002. The beginnings of the Conservation Fund were simple. Decatur worked as a business manager at an educational nonprofit. At a social gathering, she was talking about her work and the best ways to help children in need, when a docent from a local park lamented about how infrequently—if at all—children from disadvantaged areas visit the parks.
The Children’s Conservation Academy serves 70 students and has one of the highest attendance rates in the district.
This struck Decatur as very sad—she valued her own childhood experiences of San Diego’s beautiful natural resources—so she started to brainstorm ways to share those experiences with children from under-served neighborhoods. Her formal education was in law, not education. Undaunted, she talked to principals of local public schools and started a conservation-themed weekend and after-school educational enrichment program named YES (Youth for Environmental Success).
From the very first workshop, the fun, educational activities resonated with the students. The program soon grew to include a student art gallery and dramatic performances, based on Decatur’s love of theater (cultivated at Sarah Lawrence, naturally). “Everyone always left feeling excited and motivated—and they came back every weekend,” says Decatur.
In 2003, when one of the public schools closed in the district, parents approached Decatur and asked her about the possibility of starting a school. She spent the next 18 months drafting the Academy’s charter.
Today, the Academy serves 70 students and has one of the highest attendance rates in the district. Decatur is pleased with how happy the students are; she’s constantly developing new strategies to improve the opportunities of the children and their families. For example, since 98% of the students speak English as a second language, the Academy now offers free ESL courses for the parents.
Although Decatur’s background is not in education, that didn’t stop her from seeing a need and creating a solution for it in the community. This confidence and creativity is something that matured while at Sarah Lawrence: “I felt supported there—my ideas were valuable…I benefit from my Sarah Lawrence experience each and every day.”