Tule Elk Park Child Development Center
Story and photos by Mary Eisenhart
“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterwards.”
-Wallace Stegner (quote at entrance to Tule Elk Park)
“Rita, who’s she?” an inquiring 5-year-old, pointing in my general direction, asks teacher Rita Hurault, who’s gathering her kindergarteners and 1st graders as they arrive for their after-school program. “Who are you?” says another, looking up at me.
This is my friend Mary, says Hurault. She’s here to write a story about the school.
Nobody tells them they shouldn’t ask questions like that. Nobody tells them they shouldn’t call their teacher by her first name. And, once their curiosity about the stranger is addressed, the kids are off to more interesting pursuits. Playing among the trees. Digging in the garden. Observing the worms and other fauna near the compost bin. They’re especially happy today, because it’s Friday and they don’t have homework (yes, in San Francisco, kindergarteners have homework…), so they’re free to play and explore longer than usual.
It’s a typical afternoon at Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, a two-time grant recipient from the Rex Foundation.
Originally founded in 1943, as the Yerba Buena Children’s Center, Tule Elk Park is part of the San Francisco public school system, with a full-day program for toddlers and preschoolers and an after-school program for kindergarteners through 4th graders (who also attend all day during school vacations). Says site manager Alan Broussard, “When the program was conceived in 1943, we were in the midst of World War II, and the purpose of the program was to support low-income families, primarily women who were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time, the Rosie the Riveter moms. It was a child-care situation, but because it was connected to the school district, it always had an educational focus, preparing kids for kindergarten. I don’t think we’ve changed that dramatically – our primary audience is still low-income children. We’re really a gateway to the K-12 system; we’re a foundation for lifelong learning.”
Like most urban schools, the center was, for most of its existence, a barren expanse of concrete and asphalt, in a neighborhood where even a street tree is a rarity. But in 1990, it began a remarkable process of self-transformation that’s still ongoing.
It all started when Broussard, then a teacher at the school, approached Lynn Juarez, then the site manager, about the possibility of cutting a hole in the surrounding fence to allow his students access to a small adjacent patch of dirt in which to garden.
He explains, “Our kids were mostly inner-city children whose opportunity to experience and be associated with nature was pretty limited. When we took them just to the park down the street, where there was dew on the grass in the morning, and bugs, they didn’t want to sit on the grass, because it was either too wet, or there were too many bugs – it was just completely foreign to them.
“We began to wonder why we weren’t supporting kids to really connect with nature. There’s such a deprivation around this issue, particularly with urban low-income kids. And that was the impetus to creating something much more than a hole in the fence – to really think how to use 20,000 square feet of asphalt to create a green space that kids could learn in and from.”
Says Hurault, who came to the center in the mid-’90s, “What these children needed deeply was a connection to the natural world. They were scared to death of grass, dirt and bugs. And that’s the stuff of life.”
With the public school district, like many others, perennially strapped for funds, any such project was going to require serious creativity and community involvement. Broussard recalls, “It was an effort that involved seeking out people initially who were willing to suspend reality and dream with us, and we went about developing this design by seeking out people whose imagination could envision that.
“We found a landscape architect who was willing to think this through with us; we engaged our parents by bringing them together on Saturdays to talk about what we had envisioned and ask for their input. We did the same thing in the classrooms, where the children drew and had discussions about what this new playground might look like. Then we reached beyond the school community and began to find people in the broader community, particularly in the neighborhood, who we thought would be receptive and interested in supporting such an idea. And we began to have community meetings.”
The transformation began in 1992 when the San Francisco Conservation Corps began ripping out the playground’s asphalt, but the process was fraught with unexpected obstacles and equally unexpected miracles from the beginning.
“We envisioned this happening in an orderly way in phases as we got some funding,” Broussard laughs, “but after we ripped up out quite a big chunk of the asphalt, what we were left with was mud. And it was winter, and everybody was miserable, and there was no playground, and there were some very challenging points in this whole process.
“But then a family who’d had a child here who had special needs discovered that we were in the process of trying to do this; they contacted a relative who happened to be connected to a construction crew whose specialty was concrete work. Over a couple of weekends, it was kind of like angels dropping from the sky: they realized this terrible situation we were in with all this dirt and mud; we found the funding for the materials, and they came and provided all the labor for this concrete work to lay out the structure of the park. They did it for free, and it was connected to this feeling that we had done this very special thing for this very special child, and they had never forgotten that.”
Over the next few years, piece by piece, the garden took shape: trees, an edible plant garden, a butterfly habitat, totem pole sculptures of native animals. Private funds paid the salary of a garden educator, an art instructor, and more. And in 1996, the Yerba Buena Children’s Center got a new name: the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, taking its name from an animal indigenous to the area.
Soon Tule Elk was generating its own ripple effects, inspiring the creation of the San Francisco Green Schoolyards Alliance, which successfully campaigned for the passage of a bond initiative in 2003 to “green” other schoolyards in the city. That launched similar projects at 16 schools; a bond initiative on the 2006 ballot seeks funds to expand the program.
“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school,” Broussard says. “And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.
“That’s why I keep pushing the envelope, even though I sometimes feel, Oh my gosh, where is this going?” he laughs.
The Rex Foundation first gave Tule Elk a grant in 1994, through the Trust for Public Land, to help with the transformation from asphalt to garden. In 2006, Tule Elk received another Rex grant to help fund the ExploStation, an upcoming project demonstrating alternative energy – solar and water power – in a way that’s engaging to the kids. “Thank God for people like Rex, and for people who contribute to things like Rex, who make this possible,” says Hurault.
On my Friday-afternoon visit, I learned more about Tule Elk from Broussard, Hurault and garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn.
Rex Foundation: Why is early childhood development so important?
Rita Hurault: It’s critical to all learning that comes afterwards. It’s the foundation. The child is developing at a very rapid clip in the early years; they’re getting their sense of self, they’re getting their sense of community, they’re getting their first real understanding of the broader world around them. So this is when it’s critical that they are given the tools for developing their feelings about the world, about learning and accessing knowledge, that will carry them through their whole lives.
If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet – those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.
Rex: What sets the Tule Elk Park program apart from its more typical counterparts?
Alan Broussard: At the core of the program is the importance of relationship. We truly believe philosophically that in order to help a child learn and succeed, and help a child love to learn, we need to have a very strong relationship with each and every individual child, as well as his or her family. That’s critical. That’s one foundation piece.
Another foundation piece is that we strongly believe that relevance is important in their education, and that as the Reggio Emilia philosophy (see sidebar below: One Mile Deep, One Inch Wide) says, we have to pay attention to what children are paying attention to. And that if we do that, if we’re good observers of children’s behavior and their interests, then we can capitalize on what’s relevant to them. So we use a project approach; it’s an inquiry-based method based on a framework where we support children to learn about the things that they’re interested in, and to go in depth.
That is a very big contrast to the old-school rote learning method, and a very large contrast to what exists in public education today, because we’re in quite a conservative environment that’s very skills-based. There’s not a lot of thought being given to supporting children’s critical thinking skills, or analytical skills, or social-emotional skills, the kind of things I think the Fortune 500 companies are actually looking for.
The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.
The third piece would be rigor: because it’s inquiry-based, there’s rigor both on the teacher and the student end, because the teacher has to be a reciprocal learner. The teacher can’t sit back and have a canned curriculum and say “Today we’re going to learn about the color red.” It’s all got to be in context, and it’s got to be related to what the study is at the moment. It may require the teacher to go online; it may require the teacher to call a professional or an expert or to go to the library. Sometimes the kids want to explore something that we don’t always know a lot about.”
Rex: How do you decide what to study?
Hurault: Everything comes from observing the children and seeing what it is they’re interested in. We’ve all gotten very good at having our ears to the ground and seeing “Well, what is it they’re following now? Could this be a study?”
For example, at the beginning of the summer we started to notice lots of ladybugs in the alder trees, and the kids kept coming up to Ayesha and me saying “Ladybugs, ladybugs! Look, look!” and we knew right away that OK, we’re going to study ladybugs this summer. It was right there in the children’s hands.
Rex: How long do you stick with a particular subject?
Hurault: As long as it takes. A typical project will have sustained interest over a longer period of time, but sometimes there are projects that just happen and last a couple of days. The ladybug project ended when the ladybug cycle turned and there were fewer ladybugs in the trees.
I had one incident several years ago where we were coming in for group time, and much to everybody’s surprise there was a worker trying to fix the windows. And instead of sitting facing me, they sat down facing the guy working on the windows and started peppering him with questions – because they are self-assured enough to ask questions. They are used to feeling that they have a right to ask questions and to have them answered seriously.
The man was wonderful; he stopped in his work and turned around, and I said, “Well, we have some interest here in what you’re doing; do you have time to talk to us?” He answered our questions and showed us his tools, and for the next two or three days it was essentially a mini-project on tools and window-fixing. The children would go into the block area and build things. It was great, just a spontaneous little tiny project. The kids just see themselves as investigators, and worthy of saying, “I want to know something about those windows. Will you tell me, please?”
Rex: And you encourage this, instead of saying, That’s not on the lesson plan.
Broussard: Exactly. “We’re not on Chapter 3 today…”
Ayesha Ercelawn: Our day is like that. It’s questions. Nonstop, constantly, because they know they can ask.
Rex: So much of conventional education is about squelching you and keeping you in line and making you conform.
Broussard: And asking you a question and demanding that you know the answer. It’s very didactic, and not at all about group consciousness, higher-level thinking. We see kids creating an environment where they can learn by asking questions, versus kids who are still about waiting for the question and making sure they have the answer.
Hurault: I see it a lot with my kindergarteners and 1st graders. They seem to have it compartmentalized: “This homework page is where I want to be sure to get it right, but here, questions are good.”
Ercelawn: The time we were surveying bugs, we left it open to them, how they decided to record what they found, as opposed to saying, This is the structure in which you’re going to record and do it. You get these amazing interpretations – this kid is doing charts, and this kid is doing tally marks, and some kids are doing drawings and some kids are doing labels. It is so much more interesting, even for us to see, and they’ve got the chance to do it the way they want, the way it works for them.
Hurault: Which gives us the information about how that particular child’s brain works, how they access knowledge. It gives us more knowledge to reach them in places where maybe they’re struggling; you can go back and see, where this child chose to make circles and dashes instead of writing a number, that maybe they need more work over here, or perhaps that child is a visual learner. The more you let them express themselves in the way that’s comfortable for them, the more you understand about that child. This teaching is just a big circle.
Ercelawn: And since it’s documentation and we often put it up, the kids get to see how each other chose to do it, and learn from each other. And they say, Oh, I could have circled each one. I could have done a key for it. And it’s all about roly-polies and worms, so it’s interesting! (laughs)
The new 3-year-olds are learning from the 4-year-olds and the 5-year-olds. Everybody’s teaching each other about what’s OK to do in the garden and what’s not. There’s a whole mentality here of taking care of nature; all the staff signs onto it. It would not be doable if it was just me saying it, but it’s coming from everybody.
You hear the kids now, telling each other “Hey, that’s nature. Don’t step on that ant; don’t pull all those leaves off that plant, you’re breaking that plant.” So they’re watching each other almost more than we’re watching them, which is really nice.
The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them. I spend a lot of time just standing around watching and listening to what they’re talking about, so I know what they’re excited about. For a year they were coming and eating spearmint – which I’m growing to make tea with, but a few of them have discovered they like chewing on the leaves.
Broussard: That whole reverence for living things – the kids come to me very, very carefully with something they’ve found, a caterpillar, a snail, and they’re very protective. They always know, because they learn from Ayesha and the staff, that it has to go back to its home. It has to return to where it was.
Ercelawn: Occasionally we’ll get a new kid who’ll start here in the middle of the year, a 1st or 2nd grader, and this is their first experience of something like this. That’s when we can all tell ourselves that we’re doing something really good here, because that kid’s knowledge and empathy levels are completely different.
Our kids aren’t scared of bugs and are careful around them, and then we get a new kid in whose immediate reaction is stomp or scream. So we spend a bit of extra time with them, getting them up to speed, and they pretty much get it from the other kids really fast.
Broussard: It’s a good kind of assessment tool, understanding the depth of the appreciation, the awareness, that our kids develop, versus someone who comes in cold and starts from scratch. The beauty now, after 10 years, is to see kids who sometimes have the ability to be here from 3 all the way up until they’re 9 or 10; the body of knowledge that they just sort of naturally walk around with is quite amazing.
Ercelawn: I know it’s coming up in the kids’ academic studies, but it’s not a piece of information Tule Elk park kids have just memorized. They have internalized how nature works, and they know it because they’ve watched it happen so many times – for example, that if they plant that seed it’ll probably grow. They complete that life cycle in front of me. They’ll collect a seed and say, ‘Can we plant it now? And even if it’s not the season I’ll say ‘YES!’ – because they made that connection right there.
Rex: According to your Web site, you have a diverse student body that speaks dozens of languages at home. What impact does that have on the learning process?
Hurault: It’s a very lively environment! The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.
I think it’s one of the strengths of this arts-based, Reggio-based curriculum, because you get this bunch of children in the yard, and everybody is excited about the ladybugs, and everybody’s talking about the ladybugs, and the children are showing each other the ladybugs, and the word “Ladybug” is written on the wall. The children learn from the teacher, they learn from each other; and they generally pick up language very quickly.
Rex: Let’s face it, mainstream education is not very much like this. How do these kids adjust once they’re in “regular” school?
Hurault: I get down about what’s happening overall in American society. I get down very specifically about what’s happening to education for our children and how they’re being pressured; the focus seems to be about beating each other out from the get-go. You’ve got to compete to get into the right nursery school, because if you don’t get into the right nursery school you’re not going to get into Stanford, and if you don’t get into Stanford your life is over because you won’t be able to have five cars. The whole thing gets so crazy.
There is a quote of Gandhi’s: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.
By giving them the foundation we’re giving them, by having this program, by children having a year or two of this experience – I can’t help but believe it changes them forever. That there’s some critical positive little kernel that’s placed in there. No matter what else happens in the rest of their lives, they’ve had this little bright shining moment where things really mattered.
We have children here whose parents work at the various embassies. We have a Russian child in our class right now, and the family’s going back in November. I asked his dad what school is like there, and he said they do not have the attention to the individual the way we do here. I could see he was feeling really torn about having to leave, because his child has been here for two or three years now, and he’s going to go from this environment to a very, very different one.
I worry for him. But I am also hopeful that this experience that he’s had here is something he will always have to draw on, and always remember that there are adults in the world who will listen to you, and hear you in your particular concerns, and help you follow your particular interests – and that those things are worthy.
So you know, every tiny spark you put out there in the world, every tiny seed you plant – you just keep planting those seeds and hoping they come out the right way. We nurture them all we can, but at some point, off they go. You do what you can do.
The kids in my class going to school are transforming their worlds. Right now one of our feeder schools is digging up part of their asphalt to create a garden. It happened because the parents are aware of this environment and what is happening here, and the teachers there became interested in what is possible. There’s a growing movement to have this kind of environment for urban children. The sidewalk is sort of cracking, and the grass is coming through here and there.
One Mile Deep, One Inch Wide
“The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.” – Alan Broussard
Tule Elk Park’s educational philosophy is derived from the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, which emphasize community involvement, continuous learning by teachers and students, and, above all, a course of study driven by what interests the children at the time.
Whatever the chosen subject – which, at Tule Elk, has included interests as varied as alternative energy, paper, tea, and ladybugs – it becomes the context in which kids acquire knowledge and develop skills.
So, for example, for Rita Hurault’s kindergarteners and 1st graders, ladybugs became the gateway to learning about words and language (from the word “ladybug” on), numbers (counting ladybugs and recording the results), and science (observing the life cycle and day-to-day behavior of ladybugs, and how they fit into the surrounding natural environment).
Art is integral to the entire process, as the kids observe the ladybugs going about their lives and record what they’ve seen. The art they create not only shows what they’ve learned, but allows them to share knowledge with each other, to appreciate different styles of perception and expression. And, working with the art instructor, the children helped create ceramic tile murals recording what they’ve learned about a particular subject, leaving a permanent legacy of their learning for those who come after them at Tule Elk.
Rex Board Perspective
Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:
When I visited Tule Elk, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the outdoor area, with all the different spaces for the children to play, engage in learning and demonstrate their creativity.
Then I talked with Alan and Rita about the program. Having taught 3rd- 4th and 5th- 6th grades back in 1970 and 1971, I knew that Tule Elk was providing a special gift to not only to the students and their families, but also to the teachers and other staff connected with the school.
I have a deep personal conviction that nourishing the minds and spirit of our children is one of the most important responsibilities we all have to ensure the well-being and richness of our communities.
To encourage children to observe the world around them, to appreciate and think about the interconnections of all things, and be enthusiastic about questioning and learning as much as possible, is a tremendous boost to promoting their healthy development, and, ultimately the health and vibrancy of our culture as a whole.
Suggestions for Further Reading by Tule Elk
“The Best Kept Secret This Side of Italy,” by Gary Stager
Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach, Lilian G. Katz, Sylvia C. Chard
All Kinds of Minds, Melvin D. Levine
A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine