Retrofitting parking lots. Planting native plants along a creek bank and in open space. Mentoring elementary school students. Working with biologists and the National Park Service. Making public service announcements.
These are not tasks one generally associates with high-school curricula. But these and many other projects fill the days of Rona Zollinger’s students at The Environmental Studies Academy, Greenhouse Academy and New Leaf, which she co-founded, help students who did not fit into the traditional high-school system find their passion and the confidence to succeed.
“I help facilitate and empower students to be active members of the community,” Zollinger said recently, during a visit to her Green Media class. “New Leaf is a collaboration of teachers, students, parents and community members.”
Briones School is a home-study alternative for high-school students who were not succeeding at . Zollinger co-founded her environmental courses with Corrine Christiansen to provide students with hands-on experience in the community and as a means to improve the environment and learn important life skills at the same time.
“I’m helping them to become socially empowered agents of change,” she said. “I find student interests, cultivate them and find partners in the community interested in the same thing. Then I get them together. I try to give my students exposure to as many employers as possible.”
“The school puts us in real-world situations,” said senior Tyler Thompson. “Regular high school is classroom based. Here, a lot of the time is in real-life situations out in the real world where we’re treated as adults, not like kids.”
“Until I physically do something, it doesn’t help me to hear about it,” said Coday Skinner, also a senior. “You can tell me how to paint a mural all day long, but until I get a brush in my hand, it doesn’t help. This class promotes such transformations in people.”
The mural at the corner of Alhambra Avenue and Alhambra Valley Road was painted by Zollinger’s class, as were several other murals around town.
Students have retrofitted the parking lot on Green Street, behind the Copper Skillet, with the help of city engineer Tim Tucker. They also have worked for nurseries, and planted native plants on the Alhambra Creek bank and at Sky Ranch, which is owned by the .
“This class really transforms people,” said Cheyanna Washburn. “When I was younger, I did a lot of stupid things. I never thought I’d graduate. Then I came here and it opened by heart up. I’ve had one teacher to bond with during the past four years. She knows how to steer you and let you find your own way.”
“All of these students are smart and challenged by life,” Zollinger said. “The way the system works, it doesn’t work for them. I believe the structure of high school has to change dramatically. We need to shift from the factory model to one that creates students who are individuals, who can think for themselves.”