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.

The students of Dunham Elementary are stewards of a particularly important piece of wetland. The restoration of this 2.5-mile stretch of Tolay Creek, adjacent to Tolay Lake Regional Park off of Lakeville Highway, will create a much-needed wildlife corridor for animals migrating north from San Pablo Bay, and it will serve to mitigate the effects of climate change, according to Isaiah Thalmayer, project manager for the site.

The project is in the 1,657-acre Tolay Creek Ranch, formerly known as the Roche Ranch, which the Sonoma Land Trust purchased in 2007 for $13 million. The property will someday become part of Tolay Lake Regional Park, doubling the park's size.

Besides natural beauty, the park boasts a deep archeological significance. Some 4,000 years ago, native Americans from all over Northern California traveled to the area to cast charm stones into Tolay Lake, which was thought to cure illnesses. The polished stones and other artifacts such as arrowheads are regularly unearthed during restoration work, Thalmayer said.

The $300,000 restoration project will take seven years to complete and involve hundreds of students. The Carneros Land Stewardship Foundation helped fund the project.

"All the planting is being done by students," Thalmayer said. "They're pretty excellent at that. Give them the time and they know what they are doing."

Thalmayer said the purpose of the restoration is to provide a riparian canopy over the stream to prevent erosion and to provide shade for fish and a nesting spot for birds such as the golden eagle, the western meadowlark and the burrowing owl.

Parent volunteers work alongside the students to make sure the young planters stay on task. Parents say that the STRAW program is a wonderful, hands-on opportunity for their children to learn about science, and about environmental stewardship.

"They know that a little bit of effort makes a big difference," said Matt Everson, father of a first and third grader. "They learn basic service to society, and that it's our planet and we should take care of it."

Teachers, like Anita Buckner, who has participated in the program for nearly 20 years, say that the experience compliments lessons learned in the classroom and gives students confidence.

"Our kids get so much out of it," said Buckner, a first grade teacher. "Some kids struggle in the classroom. To have them out of the classroom and have them the expert at planting, that is so empowering."

(Contact Matt Brown at argus@arguscourier.com)