A Patch of Green

There are only two places where eight-year-old Keaudra Weatherington feels safe: behind the locked door of her apartment in a rundown and barren Liberty City public housing project, and among the flora and fauna of an abundant tropical ecosystem she helped build in the courtyard of Charles R. Drew Elementary School several blocks away. It matters little that she doesn't know the names of the dozens of plants and trees in the ecosystem, or that she can't identify the different kinds of lizards that scurry around the plot. Those are superfluous details she'll learn in time. For now, the ecosystem is a place of unadulterated wonder for Keaudra, a sanctuary from the drugs and prostitution and gunfire that have stolen the neighborhood from her.

"When I get out of school, I spend all my time here," says the fidgety, pigtailed fourth-grader as she wanders through the 2400-square-foot garden. "I look around for the animals, see if any are missing." And if another student tries to tamper with the ecosystem or discards a candy wrapper under a shrub? Word goes straight to the principal's office.

Fortunately, Keaudra is not the garden's only sentry. Most of the faculty and student body have come to treasure the ecosystem, although that wasn't always the case. A year ago, when gifted-classes teacher Nancy Puckett first proposed the idea of transforming Drew's splotchy grass courtyard into a science study center full of plants and small animals and an artificial pond, some faculty members didn't want to hear about it, including principal Fred Morley. "I was totally against it," says Morley. "They were talking about iguanas and frogs, and I was concerned about the animals leaving the ecosystem and running loose around the school. And I didn't think the children would learn anything from it."

Puckett found appropriate lesson plans at the Museum of Science, spoke with environmentalists about the practicality of the courtyard ecosystem, lobbied hard among the faculty, and finally sold the school's teacher-based planning committee on the plan in early October. But the designs became entangled in zoning ordinances and health regulations for six months. The school finally broke ground on Earth Day, this past April 22, and the project became a schoolwide endeavor, as 150 students hauled 30 tons of topsoil into the courtyard, using sand pails and buckets. "The idea behind it was I wanted the children to have ownership because then they would take care of it," explains Puckett, who moved to Miami from St. Louis two years ago and is beginning her third year at Drew Elementary.

During the next two months, teachers, students, and even some parents, working every day and on weekends, assembled the ecosystem. The group planted a forest of plants and trees, including Boston and wild ferns, banana trees, a black olive tree, bougainvillea, two coconut palms, dragon plants, a mahogany tree, and passion vine that snakes over a trellis archway. They introduced anoles, iguanas, a South American gecko, a blind snake, tree frogs and whistling frogs, and two box turtles that dwell by the side of a pond the size of a small bathtub. They topped off the ecosystem with fourteen truckloads of mulch and a winding pathway of stepping stones.

The final bill for the project: $4000, $2200 of which was donated by Southern Bell. The students and teachers collected the balance through bake sales, jewelry sales, and private donations.

The ecosystem -- the only one of its kind in the Dade County school system -- is almost totally self-sustaining, except for the monthly addition of about 300 crickets to supplement the diet of the Cuban and green anoles. Hummingbirds have made occasional appearances, as have cattle egrets. A yellow-and-black striped garden spider the size of a half-dollar has made the courtyard its home. During the summer, the green anoles hatched two clutches, a further sign of the system's health.

Teachers have used the ecosystem for science, art, and creative writing classes, and, Puckett says, students study the plants and animals in their spare time. "I think it's great," says Morley, who is now an ecosystem booster. "It's making the children aware of the environment and helping them to learn the value of life. Most kids, when they see a lizard, they want to kill it. But not the kids who havebeen here."

In fact, Morley says, one of the first things he did the day Hurricane Andrew hit was to inspect the ecosystem. As it happened, the storm wiped out the vegetable and flower beds but spared the rest of the ecosystem. The replacement carrots, poppies, lettuce, pineapples, marigolds, and herbs should begin to root by the end of the month.

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Kirk Semple