Green Schoolyard Planned for San Francisco’s Starr King Elementary

A waterfall at Sherman Elementary School is among sustainable features at SFUSD schools.<br />PHOTO COURTESY OF NIK KAESTNER

A waterfall at Sherman Elementary School is among sustainable features at SFUSD schools.

By Alex Emslie
San Francisco Examiner

A growing movement to rethink the asphalt schoolyard and bring San Francisco public education into the sunshine could be getting a display piece at Starr King Elementary School in Potrero Hill.

The K-5 school already has a small garden, and it has become an “outdoor classroom” where students spend part of one day each week getting their hands dirty planting, harvesting and learning natural science. Starr King’s program is separate from the 22 other San Francisco Unified School District sites with outdoor classrooms served by the district-affiliated nonprofit Education Outside.

What’s different about the plan for Starr King is its scale, said Nik Kaestner, the SFUSD’s director of sustainability. What is now an asphalt-dominated schoolyard would be completely transformed by the end of summer 2016.

“There’s still basketball courts,” Kaestner said, describing a draft blueprint for the upgraded schoolyard. “However, there’s also a storm water management creek running along the baseball diamond. There’s rainwater harvesting collection that will hopefully be feeding our first district wide rainwater-supplied toilets. We’ve got a huge new German-style play structure that will be made of whole tree trunks as opposed to McDonald’s gray plastic and metal. We’re really trying to think outside the box.”

The program has sprouted green schoolyard components in about 50 locations district wide, and Education Outside provides staff at 22 of those locations, said Executive Director Arden Bucklin-Sporer. They’re gaining momentum to replace parts of the hard, man-made schoolyards with natural materials and plants at 84 public schools throughout The City.

Just a sliver of school modernization bonds passed in 2003, 2006 and 2011 have provided about $14 million for naturalizing school sites. That translates to about $150,000 per school that’s interested, Bucklin-Sporer said.

The district estimates the Starr King project will cost about $500,000. Kaestner said the district will pay about two-thirds of that cost with existing sustainability bond money, but the school will have to petition for the rest through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and City Hall.

That’s by design, he said, to ensure the school community is invested in maintaining its new green space.

Kaestner hopes Starr King will serve as a model for other SFUSD schools, and maybe even schools in other districts.

But re-imagining more schools at the level planned for Starr King will take additional funding. Advocates for such programs say they hope Starr King will inspire voters to fund a much bigger greening effort.

“Imagine how powerful it would be if we had a bond that was all about these wonderful, forward-thinking, progressive ideas, that make schools a place where you’d want to send your kid,” Kaestner said. “Ultimately what it comes down to is: Can we get everybody in The City to send their kids to public school? It’s not going to happen if they look like black asphalt yards. But it could happen if people look at public education and see that this is the kind of stuff that’s going on.”

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