Tucked into a valley among the green folded hills southeast of Petaluma, along the reedy bank of Tolay Creek, fourth grader Jack Bandy helped his fellow students clear a patch of grass, dig a hole in the black earth, and drop in a Valley oak seedling.
Once the baby tree was correctly planted, Bandy and the other first, third and fourth graders of Dunham Elementary School called out, "Plant inspection," and a restoration expert from Petaluma's PRBO Conservation Science checked to see if the students were ready to add a plastic tree guard.
"It's kind of fun to just plant stuff," said Bandy, 9. "It's like recess all day."
About 90 students, working in groups, continued planting valley oaks, live oaks, California wild rose and snowberry shrubs under a cloudless blue sky on a recent warm Friday. Bandy and his classmates said they liked being outdoors, but they also understood that their work was helping to improve this patch of ecosystem that has been trampled by decades of cattle ranching.
"Planting can help make the environment look better," Bandy said.
"These trees will make it so the animals will have more shade and oxygen," added Siena Piambo, an 8-year-old third grader.
These nuggets of environmental knowledge are music to Laurette Rogers' ears. A former teacher, Rogers founded the Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed or STRAW program in 1992 after a student asked her how the class could help save the endangered freshwater shrimp.
Now part of Petaluma's PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) Conservation Science, the STRAW program organizes 3,000 Bay Area students a year to plant 2,500 native species and has restored 430 total sites while teaching children about the environment, Rogers said.
"We can do a professional, quality restoration job," said Rogers, the STRAW program director. "The kids love it. This is really career education. We've seen kids transform through the program."
Everyone involved in the STRAW program benefits, she said. Students pick up hands-on science lessons in a living classroom. Teachers receive environmental science education training so that they can apply the lessons learned in the field back in the actual classroom. And the program gets an army of young, enthusiastic volunteers to help with the restoration work.