An Elementary School Backyard: The Start of Big Things

Nonpoint Sources News-Notes, June 2001

Castro Valley, an unincorporated suburban community, lies east of the bustling San Francisco Bay metropolis, in Alameda County, California. Many families here choose not to send their children to local schools or to those in the east bay cities, but to more rural schools. A small four-room elementary school on a rural canyon road in Palomares is home to 92 students who are either carpooled or driven by their parents. The setting offers a clue as to why parents might make this commute.

Imagine going to a school where the playground includes an open meadow with a creek flowing at its edge. A primitive trail provides access to the creek and a wooded hillside rises behind the school. Children are surrounded by trees and water in a natural, semi-wild environment. But more importantly, they are also offered an expanded environment-based curriculum.

A Setting for Action

When Alameda County’s Resource Conservation District (RCD) office was developing watershed-wide action plans for upgrading Palomares Creek’s water quality, they knew public outreach efforts would be critical. Christy Johnson of the RCD said, “Getting people to change littering behaviors or careless use of the stream and its banks cannot be left at sending brochures to their homes that might lie unread on a kitchen table.” To effectively deliver the message about living right with the creek in the backyard, the county decided that a tangible restoration site demonstrating exemplary creek management would address their goals.

Palomares Site Activities


  • Creek cleanup
  • Wildlife/wildlife habitat improvement
  • Revegetation of the hillside with native species
  • Rebuilding a hiking trail


  • A separate environmental center with space for teaching materials and desks
  • Development of a recycled materials playground for the kids
  • Community environmental fair Community-based effort such as “Friends of Palomares Creek” to take on watershed stewardship
With the beautiful backdrop, a ready-made audience of eager young environmentalists, the presence of committed educators, and a natural community focal point, Palomares Elementary School was an ideal setting. The presence of the model restoration site at this school would not only add to the water quality of the creek, but also become a community educational and recreational resource.

Funding for the project came from many sources, who saw in it a multi-faceted project to address several community resource needs and diverse opportunities. Alameda County was the recipient of a section 319 grant of $300,000, half of which was allocated to the Creek restoration site at the school. Alameda County Public Works Agency contributed and sponsored the involvement of the Alameda . Pacific Gas & Electric and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided a joint grant, and Castro Valley School District also contributed.

Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Contra Costa & Alameda Counties) was impressed enough with the scope and breadth of the project that she helped secure federal funds for the project and released a statement in Washington, DC, saying, “The Creek project is the perfect example of the federal government, private industry, and a local school community coming together to solve a local environmental problem. By restoring the watershed and rebuilding the hiking trails, we are adding to the community and increasing our quality of life.”

Natural Innovation at the Site

What better way of teaching the benefits of preventing creek siltation and littering than by offering the wholly pleasant experience of walking along a beautiful creekside trail while strategic signboards along the way explain the importance of watersheds, ecosystems, and their health? Using grant monies, the project team cleared and restored an old existing trail to prevent erosion into the creek and put up environmental education signs along the walk.

What more effective way to teach stream bank restoration than to show that without pouring concrete, natural biological restoration methods work to stabilize banks? The team also put in more stable bends on the trail, secured slopes and banks by planting willows, employed strong rooted trees and other bioengineering methods, and installed a wooden bridge across the creek to prevent trampling.

Natural Teaching Assets

School principal Denise Hone says, “Teachers have capitalized on their ‘natural’ assets and sunk their teeth into an expanded curriculum based on environmental science and nature to simultaneously use their backyard resources and try to meet the goals of the California standards.”

In addition, teachers at Palomares Elementary received a grant from EPA to develop curriculum similar to an Adopt-A-Watershed program, and were able to participate in a “retreat,” specifically to develop Environmental Integrated Curriculum (EIC) modules based on their school’s backyard. The EIC is a national program outlining approaches to environmental education. Lessons pinpoint topics of study such as erosion in a watershed or the growth cycle of butterflies, while teaching skills in math, reading and writing, critical thinking, and the interconnectedness of disciplines.

Hone emphasizes the ownership that students feel when they do projects in their own backyard. “Students have a vested interest in concepts like erosion and pollution because they can identify where it happens, how it happens, or see it happening.” Teachers measure success by their students’ visible enjoyment of activities and lessons, in insightful comments that their students make about the natural processes around them, and in students using words such as “source pollution.” One kindergartner who saw the connection between rain and erosion commented, “Look—the rain is running down the hill and into the Creek.” The small start of a big awareness.

The lesson plans developed by the Palomares teachers form a web of learning based on their creek site environment and address achievement criteria set out in state standards. They are available in stand-alone binders at the school, and are available to other teachers. Now, area schools bring classes of students into Palomares for day programs, and are using those same lesson plans. The RCD outreach effort to restore Palomares Creek has, through the school, established the roots it needs for fostering awareness of watersheds, habitats, and natural life-systems, as well as human impacts, erosion, and the potential for pollution.

A Separate Environmental Center

As part of the last phase of the project, Palomares hopes to develop a separate environmental center and a playground built entirely of recycled materials. “The educational focus of the school,” says Hone, “is on environmental education and its use as a mode to accelerate our math and science programs. In this, we aim to become pedagogical models.” Indeed, there is already a demand to have a classroom base for outside schools who visit the creek site and want space to undertake in situ learning modules.

The RCD wants the environmental center to become a reality because they envision further community sponsorships through it, for programs such as Community Creek Day, expanded science fairs, exhibits, and resource protection outreach opportunities. Community fairs are an opportunity to show off the creek’s restoration as well as reach out to creek-side dwellers and other recreational users of the creek. RCD is already overseeing the construction of the ‘recycled playground’ by a contractor.

“Kids bringing awareness home, and then involving their parents in science projects, homework assignments, and fairs is a powerful way to bring the stream and its restoration out into the community at large,” said Christy Johnson. Eventually, the RCD hopes that community efforts will take over the running and oversight of the creek trail and boards along with the school. A “Friends of Palomares Creek” organization is envisioned as part of the long-term plan. This is one schoolyard shaping a big future.