Caceres Elementary School in Donna launched an exciting and fun way for students to learn about nature while preparing for the state standardized test at the same time.

The campus unveiled the development of its new outdoor Learning Landscape Garden at a groundbreaking ceremony attended recently by DISD leaders, students, and community members. The Garden will consist of a variety of native plants the students are planting. It will also include a pond with bird baths and bird feeders as well as benches for visitors to sit and enjoy.

Third-grade student Susan Salazar created the winning Garden design that also included stepping stones for people to walk across the bridge and lights to see the scenery at night. “We want to see the plants grow as we learn their needs and how they interact with animals in our campus,” Salazar said.

Classmates Kaitlyn Lazo and Camila Gamboa are excited about the project as well. Both students had winning essays that explained why their elementary school should have a Garden.

download-1“We will be able to touch the plants and see how they feel and smell,” Lazo said. “We will also learn the names of the plants and animals.”

Gamboa described how the Garden will be a safe haven for animals. “It will help the animals by providing shelter and protection from other animals and they will also have food to eat.”

School administrators said this initiative is being made possible thanks to the Rio Grande Valley Learning Landscape Collaborative which consists of several organizations, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Quinta Mazatlan, National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District.

Donna High School alumna Laura de la Garza, a Park Ranger for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, helped spearhead the Garden at Caceres. She said that she heard how successful it was at PSJA ISD and wanted to model it at Donna ISD.

“We started to see that something was missing in the student’s curriculum which is the outdoors,” de la Garza said. “Students are being tested on the plant cycle in the classroom, but what better way for them to learn than from Mother Nature. Bringing this outdoor Garden to them will help them better retain the knowledge and be successful when they’re tested.”

download-2The Garden project will be geared toward third-grade students and incorporate a curriculum designed to help them prepare for their first attempt at the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

“The students will have an opportunity to interact and observe the Garden,” Science Teacher Nancy Montelongo said. “It’s not only going to be about science but many subjects. We’re going to cover literature because we’re going to be reading different books about gardening and nature. We’re going to cover writing and math because they’re going to measure how much a plant has grown. The students will also learn how the weather plays a role. All the subjects come together.”

But the Garden is not just about preparing students for the STAAR tests. It is about connecting the children with nature.

“We’re planting a lot of native plants like Salvia and milkweed,” de la Garza said. “Milkweed is a plant that’s very important to the Monarch butterfly. We want the children to learn that the Monarch butterfly is endangered because it has lost so much of its habitat and food source. What they’re planting in this garden is crucial to the butterfly’s survival. That’s why students need to understand the ecological importance of this area and why they need to conserve and be good stewards themselves.”

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