By Kat Sawyer
Making room for nature in public schools has been a part of my professional work for more than a decade. I remember managing my first significant school greening project in 2008, to demolish two large sections of concrete on the playground of Daniel Webster Elementary in San Francisco and construct raised planting beds out of the broken pieces. When I look back, I realize how complex that endeavor was, and I have gratitude for the key partners who helped me achieve that vision.
Stormwater management and water reclamation became the focus of my work, and I developed a specialty for installing rainwater catchment systems (cisterns) and creating pockets of natural play space within the asphalt that covers school grounds in San Francisco Unified School District. Over the years I’ve installed cisterns in more than 25 SFUSD schools. Each project brings to mind a committed teacher, garden educator or parent who was my main point of contact and partner in the effort. Most of these rainwater systems were installed in elementary schools, and the work always culminated with a big community volunteer day when parents and students helped build, plant and celebrate together.
Once the dust settles after construction, the successful gardens become an integral part of the school’s activities and curriculum. That is the ultimate goal behind any school greening project. It’s easy to rally support to build a garden or rainwater catchment system, but ongoing care and maintenance can become a struggle for schools and a big challenge for district administrators. SFUSD has been working to address this problem, and I’m proud to say that The Watershed Project will be a part of the solution.
This fall we will roll out an exciting new program in San Francisco Unified School District that pairs hands-on learning opportunities for high school students with real world challenges to maintain green infrastructure in public schools. This program will teach green infrastructure to John O’Connell High School students in the CTE (Career Technology Education) Construction Pathway while servicing rainwater catchment systems in elementary schools we’re treating as “clients.” The Watershed Project began developing this idea with Tamar Barlev, SFUSD Green Schoolyard Manager and Chris Wood, instructor at John O’Connell in 2019. It has taken time to secure the partnerships and funding to deliver this pilot program, but our persistence paid off. TWP’s innovative training will be funded by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission under the management of Lotus Water, an engineering firm that specializes in water and green infrastructure.
This fall, our Education team will deliver introductory green infrastructure lessons to John O’Connell High students. SFUSD Instructor Chris Wood and TWP Program Manager Kat Sawyer will work with teams of JOC students to assess the needs of the client elementary schools. Then the student teams will make repairs and upgrades to the rainwater harvesting systems under Chris and Kat’s supervision. Meanwhile, TWP Education staff will establish connections with teachers at each client school site. TWP staff will do a special training for the elementary school teachers featuring the newly developed green infrastructure lessons and curriculum, and John O’Connell high school students will do presentations for the elementary school students explaining how their rainwater harvesting system works. We’ll add plants and customized elements to the cisterns and campus gardens as a part of the upgrades. Hands-on learning and intergenerational relationships make this program unique, and our holistic approach will create more institutional memory around the rainwater catchment systems that I have installed in SFUSD over the years.
I am gratified to know that my efforts to build green infrastructure in public schools have come full circle with The Watershed Project, and we are writing a new chapter that will create pathways for young people to become interested in the field of green infrastructure. We’re not just planting trees, we’re planting inspiration!