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LA Schools Urgently Transforming from Asphalt to Green Haven

-Editorial

As the temperature soars higher year after year in Southern California, it becomes more important than ever to do the hard work of increasing the shade and green areas of the city, updating parks, and undertaking the long-overdue effort to change vast asphalt schoolyards into living spaces.

This work also needs to consider existing structural inequities, where shade has become a fixture of privilege, and low-income communities lack sufficient parks and green areas. Research has shown that greening schoolyards directly impacts children’s safety, health, and ability to learn. Yet, most schools in Los Angeles need more green space or shade. Speakers at a recent Ethnic Media Services forum addressed the work that community organizations and Los Angeles School District officials are undertaking to address this problem.

In the wake of experts’ recommendations urging a 30% tree canopy coverage to combat rising global temperatures, the California Schoolyard Tree Canopy Equity Study, recently released by Green School Yards America, sheds light on a troubling reality: 2.6 million students across the state interact daily on schoolyards with less than 5% tree canopy coverage.

According to Marci Raney, Senior Program Manager in the Office of Well-Being at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, “These environmental conditions have contributed to higher rates of asthma, chronic absenteeism, physical inactivity, heat exhaustion, and cognitive challenges.”

The study highlights another concerning finding: 356 schools in Los Angeles County are situated within 500 feet of a freeway, exacerbating health risks for students. Raney points out that “Only 10.1% of students meet the aerobic and muscle strengthening physical activity required for healthy development.”

Moreover, disparities are pronounced among students from low-income families and students of color. Raney stresses, “Safety, health, and academic performance outcomes are all worse for these students.”

Raney’s research team demonstrated that the installation of high-quality living schoolyards, characterized by abundant trees and shade, physical barriers between play zones, and diverse natural obstacles, leads to increased physical activity and healthy motor skill development.

“Living schoolyards have the power to improve the overall health and well-being of all people,” says Raney. “They can help address many of the population-based disparities previously mentioned.”

Raney emphasizes the importance of investing in green spaces within schoolyards, stating, “After a living schoolyard renovation, the academic achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and not economically disadvantaged students significantly decreased.”

The benefits of green spaces extend beyond physical health. “Children who spend more time outdoors have lower asthma rates, higher vitamin D levels, and stronger immune systems,” Raney explains.

Furthermore, the presence of trees and access to nature have a profound impact on students’ mental well-being. “Simply by looking at a tree through a classroom window, students experience an immediate decrease in heart rate and stress levels after a mentally challenging activity,” says Raney.

Despite some momentum in addressing these issues, Raney acknowledges that progress is slow due to budget limitations. “We have to think more collaboratively about what is the next step to ensure that the money is directed towards this critical improvement,” she concludes.

Dr. Rocio Rivas, Chairperson of the Greening Schools and Climate Resilience Committee of the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education, outlined the committee’s vital efforts and initiatives to transform school environments into healthier, more sustainable spaces.

“As a former LAUSD student, I vividly remember playing on asphalt and concrete without access to parks. Now, as a board member, I am passionate about making a difference in children’s lives by greening our schools,” stated Dr. Rivas during the briefing.

The committee, established for the first time in the district’s history, is dedicated to greening schools and enhancing climate resilience. Dr. Rivas emphasized the holistic benefits of such efforts, including improved student health, safety, academic performance, and community well-being.

Key areas of focus for the committee include upgrading facilities to improve energy efficiency, integrating climate change education into the curriculum, creating green spaces for outdoor learning, and prioritizing equity in underserved communities.

Efforts to upgrade facilities involve comprehensive plans to enhance energy efficiency by replacing windows, upgrading HVAC systems, and installing water-saving fixtures. These improvements not only create more comfortable learning environments but also reduce energy costs, freeing up resources for critical needs.

In terms of curriculum integration, the committee aims to equip students with the knowledge and skills to become environmental stewards and leaders. Collaboration with educators is essential to integrate climate change education into the curriculum effectively.

Moreover, the committee is committed to creating vibrant outdoor environments on school grounds to encourage learning and physical activity. This includes planting trees, creating gardens, establishing outdoor classrooms, and revamping existing play areas.

Dr. Rivas emphasized the importance of community collaboration and equity in the committee’s work. By actively seeking grants and exploring partnerships with private and public entities, the committee aims to support green initiatives across all schools.

Equity remains central to the committee’s efforts, with a focus on identifying schools in underserved communities that require the most support. Through collaboration with parents and community members, the committee seeks to ensure that plans address the specific needs of each school and community.

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