Environment & Science

Audubon's Baldwin Hills program creates opportunity for Dorsey High students

A dozen Dorsey High School students participate in L.A. Audubon's conservation program in Baldwin Hills. Those who take part have a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
A dozen Dorsey High School students participate in L.A. Audubon's conservation program in Baldwin Hills. Those who take part have a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
Robert Jeffers

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An urban ecology program that helps economically disadvantaged high schoolers become conservationists is looking to grow. Los Angeles Audubon’s environmental education initiative at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook nurtures scientific understanding among Dorsey High School students.

At the overlook, the view from the steep hillside could make you dizzy with vertigo. But Dorsey High School junior Sarai Panameno moves easily up the slope, where she’s working a small plot of dirt marked off with orange tape.

“Yeah I feel like it is my backyard,” she says. “I feel like I own my own little part of the whole park.”

Panameno is a paid intern who competed for a place in the program. A research project she’s designed explores how types of hillside vegetation attract birds and wildlife.

“I’m going to plant five different species and test them out here and in the greenhouse,” she says between shovelfuls of dirt. “And then observe which one has a faster growth rate, and I’m going to see the differences on that.”

These interns are doing useful science, says restoration ecologist Margot Griswold, who oversees their work. They’re also communicating what they learn to younger kids. Four years ago, interns and restoration leaders installed a garden of native plants at Leo Politi Elementary School. Now the Politi garden is an outdoor learning lab, and Griswold says teaching younger kids gives the high school students swagger.

“Just the opportunities we give them to work with elementary school kids,” she says, “I can see them after that, saying, 'I told them this. I did this.' ”

Peer-to-peer education and project-based science have helped Dorsey High and Leo Politi students get their science scores up.

Stacy Vigallon, LA Audubon’s director of interpretation, echoes Griswold in touting a less tangible benefit a sense of ownership in the program.  

“This is their project. They are the leaders here,” she says.

For six years, Vigallon has run the Baldwin Hills program out of a small greenhouse behind the park’s ranger station. Now Audubon is raising money for a mobile, secure place to keep scientific equipment -- something more than the hood of a car or a picnic table to use as a lab. 

Most of Vigallon’s interns don’t end up as scientists. So to boost the program’s lasting value, she encourages students to integrate their hobbies into their work.  

“Conservation is for everybody,” Vigallon says. “Any profession you choose to do – it’s how you vote, it’s how you raise your kids. And the goal with this program is to give students sort of a taste of that. Like what is it like to serve your community under the context of an environmental problem, while also playing into their interest in film, their interest in music, their interest in art.”

One of the students learning that lesson this year is Monica Anderson, a girl in an earflap hat who beckons me away from a picnic table where interns are building bee boxes. A Dorsey High senior, she is applying to colleges with two years of Audubon experience under her belt. She wants to be a pastry chef, and maybe own a cafe.

“I like to cook, and I like to eat, so…” she laughs.

Anderson heard alarmed scrub jays a few minutes ago, and she’s tracked down the cause: a red tailed hawk in a palm tree.

Two years ago, she says she could maybe identify three birds. “Pigeons, and crows, and seagulls,” she says, noting that no species called a "seagull" exists.

After field work surveying bird density in Baldwin Hills, she now knows three dozen species. Inspired both by the program, and her love of Mariah Carey, she’s spreading the gospel of urban ecology through song. 

Less than half of Monica's Dorsey classmates will graduate on time, if at all. But so far, every graduating student taking part in Audubon’s Baldwin Hills program has gotten into college.

Audubon is hoping to raise $20,000 for a portable lab through a campaign that ends on New Year’s Eve