Neighborhood parent, gardener helps an elementary school blossom

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Gardener Peter Leki

photo by John Booz

Gardener Peter Leki

On the southern edge of the schoolyard at Waters Elementary, the tomatoes are ripening, the false dragons are flowering, the grapes are thick on their vines. Peter Leki—whom neighbors describe as all green thumb—leads a visitor around dense, grassy thickets to point out endangered prairie plants like Kankakee mallow, cardinal flower and swamp saxifrage.

The garden, now a block long, is only Leki’s most visible accomplishment at the Lincoln Square school. Over the past 10 years, he has served as a local school council president, a classroom volunteer, and now a university consultant. In that time, he has woven himself into the fabric of his neighborhood school in a way that few outsiders ever do.

In the early 1990s, Leki, then a water plant operator, and his wife, Deborah, a community college professor, had their three children enrolled in magnet schools. Children in the middle-class enclave where they reside typically go to private or magnet schools rather than Waters, which today is 70 percent Latino and 89 percent low-income.

But in 1991, the Lekis reconsidered that decision for their youngest son, Jamal, the only one remaining in elementary school. School bus commutes were long and his classmates were scattered around the city. So they transferred the 4th-grader to Waters, a move that gave the Lekis stronger ties in the neighborhood, too. “We liked our neighbors and felt we had a little bit of responsibility to the local struggling school,” Leki explains.

Leki’s involvement with Waters grew over time. First, he ran for local school council, won, and agreed to serve as chair. Later, he began volunteering in the classroom. After participating in, then leading parent involvement workshops for National-Louis University’s Center for City Schools, Leki was hired to run the program citywide.

A common thread running through Leki’s successive roles—LSC chair, classroom volunteer, school consultant—is promoting a school-wide ecology curriculum that gives students a chance to learn science by getting down in the dirt and into the wilds.

When Leki arrived at Waters, science classes, and much of rest of the curriculum, were text-book based and uninspired, according to Principal Tomas Revollo, who was hired in 1992 by the LSC that Leki chaired.

With an enthusiasm for nature that teachers describe as contagious, Leki introduced the faculty to hands-on ecology projects and trained parents to assist them. He also connected the school with outside groups like the Friends of the Chicago River, the Chicago Botanic Gardens and the Nature Conservancy that would supply the school with materials for field trips and in-school activities.

Leki’s ecology projects were the first school-wide effort at “hands-on” learning, and helped the faculty become more comfortable with new teaching methods, according to Revollo.

Each class tends its own plot in the school garden, and 30 families who live in the community raise vegetables there too. About 160 species of prairie plants outline the garden’s perimeter, many sown from seeds that students collected at nearby forest preserves.

The garden is a laboratory for scientific observations of plants and insects, as well as a source for descriptive writing assignments and math exercises. Third-graders, for instance, select the number and types of plants to fill their plot based on a price list, a budget, plot dimensions and guidelines on plant spacing.

The project makes abstract math concepts, like calculating area, more concrete and interesting, explains 3rd-grade teacher Diane Gebhardt. “It gives them a purpose, a reason for what they’re learning in the classroom.”

The most intensive ecology work is done in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, all of which participate in Mighty Acorns, an elementary school science program designed by the Nature Conservancy to meet state learning goals. Each grade studies a different ecosystem—wetlands, woodlands, or prairie—and visits a Cook County forest preserve three times a year for conservation work and research.

For instance, 5th-graders, who are studying woodlands, have been investigating the health of an oak forest in Chicago’s Sauganash Prairie Grove. Every year, students stretch a 100-foot line between the same two points in the forest, then they count and identify each woody growth within three feet of that line. Back in class, they graph a year’s worth of data to determine whether non-native species are overtaking the new oaks. Last year, the class wrote a letter to the Cook County Board of Commissioners that detailed their findings. They pleaded for better forest maintenance.

“It was my first time helping something in our community,” says Hanslee Garcia, now a 6th-grader. “It felt great.”

Parents become experts

Back in 1991, when Leki joined Waters’ LSC, the council had only general ideas about education reform, so members looked for outside expertise to help craft their school improvement plan. Leki’s contacts at magnet schools suggested that the council tap Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar of National-Louis University’s Center for City Schools.

The two were invited to visit the council and share their vision of education, which they explained was based on creativity, exploration and uncovering each child’s potential.

“We were amazed,” Leki recalls. “Our vision [had been] so much more limited: to stop yelling at kids, to make sure toilet paper was in the bathroom, maybe there would be some more field trips.”

At the same time, the principal of Waters had retired and the council hired Revollo, who agreed with their goal to replace rote learning with experiments and projects, Leki says. Still, teachers were slow to climb on board, he adds. Feeling that he lacked the leverage to influence them from his position on the council, Leki volunteered to work in classrooms.

Leki had recently completed an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in ecology, education and neighborhood studies at Northeastern Illinois University. That background came in handy when he began visiting classrooms and leading students on field trips, first to the Chicago River and later to nearby forest preserves. “Pete has knowledge normal people just don’t have,” says 5th-grade teacher Mindy Feld. “If a kid says ‘What’s that plant?’ he knows it. And this is in the woods where there are thousands of plants.”

As he shared his knowledge with students, Leki also began to influence parents. Waters had adopted the Center for City Schools’ “Parent Project,” a program that exposes parents to progressive teaching methods through activities such as writing workshops, family history projects and book groups. The idea is to help parents support children’s learning at home, and to inspire them to push for better teaching at their schools.

After attending one workshop at Waters, Leki volunteered to lead some, and in 1994, National-Louis hired him to direct the project citywide. He has since led parent workshops at 50 Chicago public schools.

One workshop he created and piloted at Waters trains parents to lead ecology activities with small groups of students. Getting parents to participate is crucial to making interactive outdoor lessons productive, Leki explains. Teachers agree that students learn more—and get to do more—in small groups with an informed parent working alongside them.

Waters is unique in providing its own corps of trained volunteers for Mighty Acorns field trips, according to Laurel Ross of the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Indeed, a shortage of forest preserve volunteers has limited the number of schools that can participate in the program, she notes. “[Waters] parents are just as involved in the field trip as the kids,” she adds. “They are not passive observers. They make the program work.”

Several years ago, grants for parent programs like Leki’s were plentiful, but now those funds are dwindling as local foundations shift priorities, he notes. This year, National-Louis can only afford to hire him part-time and has cut back the number of schools in the Parent Project. Leki, however, plans to continue his efforts at Waters.

By rooting himself in one school community, Leki says he hopes to help counteract the transience that characterizes many city schools, as reforms, programs, funding, even families, come and go. “Stay in a place over time, honor its character, and maybe you can build something good,” he says.