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Teacher Olga Cueva's kindergarten class watches as fellow students Brandon Harron, Hagan Stahl and Riley Rosenthal (left to right) shovel dirt around the newly planted fern pine at Grant Elementary School on Pearl Street Friday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PEARL STREET — Katie Furlong was ready to get her hands dirty.

Holding a kid-sized shovel, the kindergartner cautiously scooped some dirt and threw it around the root of a semi-mature Australian willow that was being transplanted from a box to its new home — the playground at Grant Elementary School where the tree has already been given a new name by the students — Goldie.

“I like digging,” the bashful young girl said.

The willow was one of five trees that were planted by parents, students and nonprofit organization Tree People on Friday, capping a more than year-long project to renovate the school’s kindergarten playground, which was once nothing more than just a giant sandbox, leaving children little room to run around.

It was in the summer of 2008 when Morley Builders, who is a Grant Elementary School sponsor, volunteered the labor and donated materials to remove the sandbox and replace it with a concrete playground, a process valued at an estimated $10,000, Principal Alan Friedenberg said.

As part of the project, school officials wanted to include sources of shade to provide relief for students who play on the west side of campus where the kindergarten classes are located and the temperature level can at times be too warm.

“It’s like being at the beach where there’s nowhere to hide from the sun,” Friedenberg said.

The school had set aside roughly $6,000 to pay for shade structures for the playground, shocked when they received a quote of $18,000 to $21,000 to complete the project.

“In my world, $18,000 to $21,000 is a deal breaker,” Friedenberg said.

In came Jessica Tuck, a school parent who proposed making the project an educational experience for the students, bringing on board a nonprofit organization that would not only teach the children how to plant and care for the trees but also the important role they play in the environment.

Tuck had long been a supporter of Tree People, a Los Angeles-based organization that oversaw the planting of nearly 400 trees at school campuses across the county last year. She took several training courses with the organization, including how to become a tree care coordinator and citizen forester, which will now allow her to help other schools in the district to complete similar tree projects.

The school selected two Australian willows and three podocarpus trees from an approved list by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, picking species that are both evergreen and do not bear fruit. The trees, stakes and mulch cost about $400, which was raised by the parents.

Each of the five kindergarten classes were then asked to adopt and name a tree which they would be responsible for maintaining throughout the school year, giving it water on a schedule suggested by Tree People. The trees were named Jerry, Peace, Goldie and Dino. The fifth tree was expected to be named on Friday.

“If you name a tree, you become that much more attached to it,” said Tuck, whose daughter is now in the first grade.

Adriana Sanchez was one of the kindergartners who participated in the tree planting, sitting in a circle with her classmates around Goldie where a Tree People volunteer gave the students a lesson on tree care.

“I feel like she’s already growing too big,” Sanchez said.

Upon the completion of each planting, the students were asked to hold hands and stand in a circle around their tree, chanting, “Trees need people, people need trees, welcome,” inserting the given name of their specific specimen at the end.

“Tree People’s mission is to encourage a functioning community forest in city life,” Katie Rogers, a campus forestry manager for Tree People, said. “For kids, if you involve them now and give them the experience, hopefully they’ll carry that further into their lives.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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