Studying Water Conservation Results in a National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitat

Rachael Barker is the lead Eco-Schools teacher at Rockdale Intermediate where she works with 3rd-5th grade Gifted & Talented (GT) students during the school day and after school in the school district’s iTigers program. Here, she answers a few questions about her school’s water conservation efforts through the Alcoa W3 (Waste, Water and Watts) Project, and how that led their campus to certify as a National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitat.

Why did you choose to become a National Wildlife Federation Eco-school?

Student. Photo Credit: Rachael Barker

This year was my first year teaching and my principal told me about the Eco-Schools USA program.  Our school was also eligible to receive the Alcoa W3 grant through the National Wildlife Federation to pursue sustainability projects on campus. This led me and a partner teacher to work together to start an Eco-Team and become an Eco-School.

What advantages or assets did you have to work with?

I had a few advantages when embarking on this project. I had a wonderful, supportive administrator and access to numerous resources. I also had grant money from Alcoa to use to fund our Eco-Schools projects on water conservation. Karen Bishop, NWF Education Coordinator, provided us with support as well.

What challenges did your school face?

I’m not sure we faced too many challenges when we initially decided to become an Eco-School. We had support from the administration and of course excitement from our students. Our most recent challenge would be the extreme heat. This limited the length of time we were able to work in our outdoor garden classroom and dictated when we could plant.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Our proudest achievement is that what started out as a GT class project quickly turned into a school-wide changing event. We started off by focusing on water conservation, one of the three pathways supported in the Alcoa W3 grant.  This led to the GT class studying about water conservation, participating in water filtration experiments, and conducting a schoolwide water audit which helped lead to almost 12,000 gallons of water saved as students identified minor leaks in sinks and elsewhere to be included in our school’s planned maintenance work to fix larger pipe leaks.

We also established a keyhole garden for our outdoor classroom. A keyhole garden, which has an active compost pile in the center that helps hold moisture and nutrients in, is perfect for the hot, dry environment of Central Texas. This keyhole garden was the beginning of the changes to our school grounds. We were able to get a water cistern to conserve water. The community members and students worked feverishly to improve our outdoor garden/classroom. While attending a NWF training, we listened to electric company representatives share their resources and ideas for conservation. From this meeting and the support of our city manager, our district was approved for 10 native trees to be donated from TXU Energy.

We also found out that our school had an existing sprinkler system that had been hiding. Facility folks at our school replaced sprinkler heads on the whole system and now our campus is greener than ever. Our trees will arrive in October and our outdoor classroom/garden will now have some shade.  I am truly amazed at the transformation that has taken place at our school as a result of this project.

What’s next on your agenda?

This past year we completed the Eco-Schools Bronze award under the Water Pathway and our outdoor garden became a certified NWF Schoolyard Habitat! Next on our agenda is to pursue the Silver Eco-Schools award with the Schoolyard Habitats Pathway and improve our outdoor classroom/garden even further by adding additional native plants for pollinators that we’ve learned will require less water than many non-native species.

What do you see as the main benefit of your participation (for students, for educators, for the school’s operations, and for the community)?

Photo Credit: Rachael Barker

The main benefit is the improvement of our playground area/outdoor classroom garden area. In the last year we have acquired plenty of picnic tables and with the planting of proper plants, our students will be able to study plant life and assorted butterflies. Students, parents, city officials, our principal and her husband (who is an Alcoa employee) and other community members have all helped with our keyhole garden and other workdays and everyone can really feel the positive change on our campus.

How does your school’s project benefit wildlife either indirectly or directly?

This project benefits wildlife by providing a habitat area. By planting appropriate flowers and milkweed, it will also benefit monarchs and other butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees for years to come. It will also establish a sense of place and pride for our students to take care of the habitat at their school and homes.

What advice do you have for others beginning their Eco-School’s journey?

My advice as a teacher to others who are beginning their Eco-School’s journey is to find something that you are passionate about and run with it. Go into it with an open mind and engage your students early and throughout the whole program. Students will gain so much hands-on experience and knowledge from these projects.

Become an Eco-School Today!