Lessons From The Los Angeles River

Betsy Farber

Writer’s comment: In Eric Schroeder’s English 104C: Journalism course, I was constantly reminded to “write what you know about.” This advice combined with a research-based trip to the Los Angeles Basin (an area I initially knew nothing about) inspired my topic choice for the feature article. When in L.A., I met Sarah Starr and became fixated with her enthusiasm and drive toward educating the public about the L.A. River. I found myself thinking, “There’s a story to tell here,” and I dove headfirst into phone interviews, Internet searches, and many conversations with Schroeder regarding the direction of the article. This experience exposed to me the pleasures and difficulties of journalism, and I feel very fortunate to have gotten my feet wet in the profession with “Lessons from the Los Angeles River.” Plus, I ended up knowing more than I ever anticipated about the topic.
—Betsy Farber

Instructor’s comment: The journalism course that I teach is part of the English 104 series which is called “Writing in the Professions” and when I teach it I like to emphasize the professional practices of journalists. In particular, I stress the need to do research by talking to the experts and by using databases like LEXIS-NEXIS. Betsy Farber learned these lessons quickly. Her essay “Lessons from the Los Angeles River” can be read as a textbook example of how to build an interesting feature article from her own personal experience and interviews conducted while on a field-research trip to the Los Angeles River and from recent newspaper and magazine articles on this unlikely urban ecosystem. She weaves these sources together seamlessly, creating a piece that’s as interesting as it is lively.
—Eric James Schroeder, English Department

When Sarah Starr envisions the Los Angeles River, she stretches her imagination past the public preconceptions of a dismal flood-control channel and sees instead a dynamic outdoor classroom. Considering that nearly 75% of the 52 mile long river is concrete-lined and degraded with trash, glass, and graffiti, Starr’s impressions are visionary. As a former high school teacher and an advocate of experiential education, Starr believes that the abused waterway provides the “perfect case study to integrate science with other disciplines and create something for the kids that is wild in their area.” Her innovative curriculum and progressive hopes for outdoor education affect both the social and natural communities in the L.A. Basin. In order to reach some of the 700,000 students in the L.A. Unified School District and to improve the limited natural habitat within the city limits, Starr must help pave a new path for the L.A. River.
         Starr, Education Director for Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), advocates conceptualizing the L.A. River as a community resource. FoLAR, a non-profit organization developed in 1986, promotes the revitalization and protection of L.A.’s living urban river. Although drastically altered by human developments over the last century, the river still supports riparian vegetation and local wildlife. By emphasizing the natural elements of the waterway and creating recreational areas for Angelinos, FoLAR activity is changing community attitudes toward the river. Lewis MacAdams, FoLAR founder, says, “At first, I had to convince people that there was a Los Angeles River. Now you won’t find anyone against it.”
         As part of a citywide effort to increase urban parks and open space in the severely populated region, L.A. community leaders embrace plans to improve the river’s condition. In 2000, the L.A. River, flowing from Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro Bay in Long Beach, was named a California State Park as part of Proposition 12. FoLAR’s long-term dedication to this natural system will continue with the newfound political and community popularity of the river. Starr focuses on K-12 education and knows that the social climate is right for her programs: “There is a groundswell building of outdoor education on the L.A. River. This is an exciting time.”
         In the next five years, Starr will implement an interdisciplinary curriculum that branches into the studies of ecology, history, art, politics, and sociology. Aimed at elementary, junior high, and high school students, the program’s success depends on local teacher cooperation, and of course, student interest. Currently, a group of pilot high schools are experimenting with the FoLAR curriculum. Given the complex natural and social histories of the L.A. River and its hopeful future in the eyes of the city officials, student efforts that highlight the impending ecological and community changes could truly benefit the city. Starr believes with the knowledge that students gain through this project, they could engage at the policy level in forming their city. However, her primary motive has always been to connect kids in a real way with their river.
         This vision originated through a FoLAR partnership with Eco-heroes, a 1998 program stemming from the UCLA Department of Public Policy and Social Research. Student groups from L.A. area high schools were coupled with local non-profit agencies in order to promote community service activity in natural habitats. Engaging students in an outdoor setting profoundly changed the way they viewed their city. Cecilia Islas, former Garfield High student, told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “It is surprising how many people take advantage of this place, leaving trash and things like dirty diapers scattered around. Writing graffiti on things.” Youth were also inspired to protect their local environment. Veronica Villanueva, a classmate of Islas, added, “I’m going to tell people not to throw their garbage in the river when they come here. I’m going to tell them to take care of this place.” Although the Eco-heroes program did not continue into the new millennium, it helped FoLAR to establish its initial youth connections with sites along the river.
         Finding outdoor classrooms along the L.A. River presents a challenge to those people intimidated by chain link fences, graffiti collages, and litter-strewn vegetation—common sights in the constructed geography of the drainage. However, citizens like Starr see a river that overflows with educational possibility. Students observe the behavior of great blue herons tiptoeing along the soft-bottomed passages; they draw the silhouettes of American coots bobbing in the shadows. Where the water swirls rapidly around concrete supports of an arching freeway bridge, cinnamon teal ride the currents and black-necked stilts call over the roar of nearby engines. Understanding the relationship between constructed habitats and wildlife inspires students to think critically about the human developments and to honor the limited open space in their areas. In places, the menacing fences have been replaced with iron artistic versions that protect people from the floodwater while improving the aesthetic of the landscape. Art projects created by students can facilitate creative re-imagining of the river as well as improve the visual state of the banks.
         Starr’s K-12 curriculum not only involves students in their local environment but also gives them the skills to improve it. “I want to try to engage schools to create water quality habitat data,” Starr says; “I want the students to do real work and collect data that is valuable to environmental groups.” Such applied ecology needs to be systematic and high in quality to be useful to professional organizations and academic researchers. Conducting the first such study, FoLAR students will monitor the water quality along the entire length of the L.A. River over an extended study period. With this in mind, Starr chose her experimentation protocol from the internationally and academically respected program, Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE).
         Henry Ortiz of the L.A. Unified School District’s GLOBE program coordinates the activities of nearly 200 teachers who utilize the innovative protocols and curriculums. Inspired by Al Gore’s Earth in Balance, the GLOBE program is a worldwide network of students, teachers, and scientists working together to study and understand the global environment. Ortiz remarks, “Our students gather data about their environment, and our teachers use the program to increase environmental ed in the classrooms, even if the students are not posting their data.” By providing a vast Internet-based database of 10,000 environmental sites from over 95 countries, students make their studies accessible to a worldwide audience. Ortiz is coordinating with the FoLAR curriculum to have students monitor specific sites along the river over time. This knowledge will allow students to take action in protecting their resource as well as inspire future scientific projects.
         In order to collect scientific data, high school students currently enrolled in the L.A. River pilot curriculum team with professional scientists. Small groups of students, accompanied by a hydrologist and a GLOBE-trained teacher, monitor specific sites along the river and collect water samples, take temperature readings, and record scientific observations. In addition to the water quality specialist, a historian, an ecologist, and an outdoor educator also guide students along the river and highlight its many facets. For instance, a day’s lesson may include a discussion of the region’s first Spanish settlements that were located at the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. Also, a review of L.A. water history and current habitat conditions will provide a relative context to the students’ efforts. More in-depth projects and analysis in the classroom follow a day on the river.
         Kathryn Stevens, a science teacher at The Accelerated Charter School in Los Angeles, emphasizes becoming intellectually and emotionally attentive to the river with her sixth grade students. Following a field trip and cleanup on the river, students analyzed both their scientific and emotional discoveries. “Before the field trip, some students didn’t know that L.A. had a river. But afterwards, they became very concerned with river restoration,” recalls Stevens; “In the classroom, they worked in teams with flow tables to learn the process of erosion and deposition. Others modeled a river timeline and identified the stages of river development.” After much discussion, the previously unaware students wrote odes to their river. “My students loved the unit on the river,” Stevens says, “Hopefully they’ll become junior advocates for a restored river and an environmentally sound community.” Progressive educators like Stevens utilize the GLOBE protocols and FoLAR curriculum to teach students about their home watershed—both on the river and in the classroom.
         Ultimately, FoLAR will enhance the curriculum to include a field station on the water—The River School. This resource will integrate student projects into the greater Los Angeles community. Since the L.A. Unified School District is adopting a year-round schooling plan, students and teachers will have “summer” vacations throughout the year to alleviate enrollment pressures. By offering six-week, multidisciplinary environmental courses year-round at The River School, FoLAR will provide a unique learning environment for students and an innovative teaching opportunity for teachers on break. Starr lights up when discussing her plan: “It will partner educators, professionals and students in a hands-on discovery process. As the students learn more about the river, we will have presentations that will exhibit their mastery to community members.”
         With the facility and time to foster innovative projects, The River School programs will contribute to the changing community perceptions of the L.A. River advocated by FoLAR. Beyond ecological monitoring, student research will investigate the social ecology of the landscape—who uses the river, what does it mean to people, how is it changing peoples’ views of nature? Through oral histories and humanities projects, students will document the development over time of communities—wild and human— along the river. Also, student safety monitors and printed material will assist in protecting and educating L.A. citizens to the potential danger of high water during the flood season. “Education is not just for K-12,” Starr says, “but for everybody.” Although Starr’s team is still working on the logistics for the school, its intention is clear—to provide an outreach education center on the banks of a community river.
         Of all the rivers in the United States, it is hard to imagine the L.A. River gathering national educational attention, but Starr is confident that this awareness will come sooner than later. She foresees a huge Student Summit attracting environmentally active youth from all over the United States to the fenced corridors of the L.A. River. By examining the various community groups dedicated to improving urban riparian and aquatic habitat, the students will learn from and contribute to the growing body of work on the river. Transferring their enthusiasm from the summit to their own watersheds, students can apply the social and natural lessons from the L.A. River to urban rivers around the nation. The Student Summit could set a precedent for the future education on the river. “If we gain this momentum in student involvement,” says Starr, “it could change the sense of entitlement to this resource for a whole generation of people.”