A neglected strip of land outside a Langley elementary school was brought to life with the help of 15 first- and second-graders and their teacher Caris Ristoff. Meanwhile, Andi Kopit guided third through fifth graders at the Organic Farm School in installing pollinator boxes they designed and built. Caris is the lead teacher for the first and second graders with South Whidbey School District’s Alternative Learning Experience Program. Along with Caris’ program Andi is a pollination biologist and community based instructor with the K-8 ALE program.

Empty lot outside of South Whidbey Elementary School North campus. Photo shared Caris Ristoff

Each of the women teach students in the Alternative Education Experience or ALE program, operated by the South Whidbey School District. ALE’s focus is to: “…provide a creative, collaborative and flexible educational model that supports a diversity of students through student-centered learning, family partnerships, community connection, and social and emotional development within a public school framework.”

Susie Richards, principal of South Whidbey Elementary School and the ALE K-8 program, helped secure grants to fund the ALE. She wrote in an email:

Susie Richards, principal of South Whidbey Elementary School and ALE’s K-8 program. Photo from SWSD webpage

“During the first year of the pandemic, I had a number of families come to me and share that their children (as well as the families!) were not excited about an online/remote learning experience – and wondering if there might be any other options. I began meeting with a group of families and teachers – and we began to look at the ALE models across the state. We gained permission from our district (and the state was kind of letting all kinds of creative things happen at that point!) and we launched what we called the “South Whidbey Parent Partnership” Program (SWAP). The model was loosely based on the ALE programs in the state – but we did not have to become an “official” ALE program at that point – but developed our own element of that – with one teacher at each grade band working with the family and children of those who wanted the SWAP option, supporting their at home learning without required screen time. The program was so successful – we approached the district about creating an actual ALE program – and based on how much interest there was – we were given the OK from the district and the state to move forward in the development of our ALE program, which launched last year.  We just completed year two – and are excited to continue moving the program forward.”

At the South Whidbey Elementary school, Caris took me on a tour of her students’ project, which involved removing weeds, cleaning old ferry seats, laying wood chip ground cover, and converting the ferry seats into planter beds for pollinators. She is a full time teacher with the South Whidbey School District.

“I teach Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and work on Wednesday and Friday to facilitate project based learning opportunities for my students and support their home learning,” Caris noted in a recent email.

A student stands on a shovel to break up weeds and compacted soil in neglected gardens housed in former ferry seats. Photo shared by Caris Ristoff

“The class decided they wanted a learning space for all,” Caris said, as we walked along the garden planted with pollinator-friendly plants. “I applied for a grant, which helped fund this project. We worked with sixth graders to install the fence with Farmer Jay.”

Students in Caris Ristoff’s first and second grade project-based classroom help install new fencing around their pollinator garden at South Whidbey Elementary School. Photo by Caris Ristoff

Farmer Jay is Jay Freundlich, a Garden Science Specialist, who runs the school’s farm program.

After the land was prepared, Caris took her class on a field trip to Bayview Farm and Garden to buy pollinator-friendly plants. They chose edibles such as sorrel, kale and clover; forest crops such as blueberry; and pollinator-friendly flowers such as bleeding heart, lupine and bee balm. The students also placed painted stones labeling the plants and others noting which pollinators the plants attract. Bee balm for instance, attracts bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.

Mae points out lupine-labeled stones at a pollinator garden built mainly by first and second graders in Caris Ristoff’s class. Caris is part of the Alternative Learning Experience program with South Whidbey Schools.

“All the students took the pollinator protection pledge,” Caris said, pointing to a Xerxes Society ‘Pollinator Habitat’ sign posted on the school garden gate. The Xerxes Society is a non-profit which has created a national bring ‘back the pollinator‘ campaign . The website notes: the pledge is based on four simple principles: Grow pollinator-friendly flowers, provide nest sites, avoid pesticides, and spread the word. With these core values, pollinator conservation can be adapted to any location, whether you tend an urban community garden or a suburban yard, work in a city park or on a farm.”

Marlee, left, and Irene, are enrolled in Caris Ristoff’s 15- student class comprised of first and second graders. They learn by creating projects which serve the community within the Alternative Learning Experience program sponsored by South Whidbey Schools.

Students brought me handfuls of kale, clover and sorrel, also known as sour-leaf. I munched a few greens and put the rest in a bag to have in a salad later that night.

Ingrid, Marlee, and Kieran with a blueberry bush they planted in a pollinator garden outside South Whidbey Elementary School.

I was thrilled to observe the students’ joy and interest in their stories about their garden, and their love of living things.

“This is a wonderful habitat for all,” said Irene. “It is super-duper fun and it’s good for the community.”

After talking with Caris and her class of interested naturalists, I drove to the Organic Farm School in Clinton to meet with Andi Kopit and her class of third through fifth graders. They sat in a circle on a shady hill when David Welton and I walked up to say hello.

Andi has worked with ALE since its flagship year.

“In ALE terms, I am a community partner or community based instructor, working with all the ALE classes on native pollinators, invasive species/habitat restoration, and Field STEM,” Andi wrote in an email. “I have an M.S. in Pollination Biology from Utah State University, and was a research assistant at the USDA Logan Bee Lab where I focused on routes of pesticide exposure in solitary, cavity-nesting bees.”
Click on the link below to learn more about Andi’s research.
“I am also coordinating field experiences for K-2 at South Whidbey Elementary, and supporting teachers in taking learning outdoors and onto our amazing school trails,” Andi added. “This is for another grant Susie received for environmental education.”
Meanwhile, back at the Organic Farm School, Andi announced: “We did data collection and estimate there are 493,644 ground nesting bees here.”
According to the Xerxes Society, 70% of native bees are ground nesting.

How the class came to that number was by using four bound twigs fashioned into a square measuring a foot on each side. Placing the measuring tool over the ground, students counted an average of 18.04 nests per square foot. They calculated the acreage and came up with a number close to half a million ground-nesting bees.

While there are ground nesting bees, there are also cavity nesting bees. For these Andi’s class designed, sawed the lumber and built boxes to house them. The boxes contain nesting material such as hollow bamboo and pithy materials such as elderberry. The Xerxes Society estimates that 30% of native bees are of the cavity nesting variety.

Bamboo is a nesting material for cavity nesting bees, which are good pollinators

Asked to introduce themselves and say why pollinators are important we met:

Penelope, who told us pollinators contribute to every third bite of food we eat.

Layla said they are pretty, and, “…what Penelope said.”

Ciara echoed Penelope’s statement.

Liliana added, “We need them to survive. Without them we wouldn’t have plants or animals or life. This would be a lava planet.”

Liliana uses a drill to attach a bee box to a post at the Organic Farm School while Layla holds the box steady. Students in Andi Kopit’s pollinator class designed, built and decorated the boxes designed to host cavity-nesting pollinators

“It’s just, like, hard to imagine a garden without them,” said Padmasalle.

“They make honey. I love honey,” added Rhyze.

Rhyze is a student in Andi Kopit’s pollinator class. Andi works with the Alternative Learning Experience program with South Whidbey School District.

Andi added that not all pollinators make honey, like the ground-nesting bees at the Organic Farm School.

David Welton said he likes to take photos of bees. “I could spend hours getting pictures of bees,” he said.

Andi brought out a display of various pollinators, and wasps and asked, “What is the difference between a bee and a fly?”

Ciara glances at display of bees, wasps and flies. Students in Andi Kopit’s pollinator class can identify the difference between bees and wasps, and flies that look like bees. Bees have four wings and flies have two.

A student said a bee has three parts to its body, a constricted waist, and that flies have two wings and bees have four.

Rhyze said that some flies have stripes like bees do. “That way they aren’t eaten,” he said.

“What about wasps?” Andi asked.

“Wasps have longer thin legs,” one student noted. “Bees collect pollen on their legs and abdomens,” another student said. “”Wasps eat meat and bees eat nectar and pollen,” added a third student.

Honeybees and bumblebees are eusocial beings, Andi added.

Eusociality, according to the Science World site, “…is the phenomenon in which a single caste of reproductive females (usually only one member) produce offspring and a non-reproductive caste cooperatively raise and care for the offspring. To be considered eusocial, the colony of a species must have overlapping generations, cooperative brood care and reproductive division of labour by a sterile worker caste. A caste is a specialized group that carries out a specific function within a colony of social insects. So in a standard beehive, a single queen exists as the only female reproductive member in the hive.”

Following Andi and the class out along farm fields and a fence, one student carried an iPhone, bearing a compass reading. The cavity-nesting bee boxes would be placed facing southeast.

Andi Kopit in sun hat walks with students in her pollinator class. Students built bee boxes for cavity-nesting bees.
One of the bee boxes students in Andi Kopit’s pollinator class designed and built. The boxes face southeast to maximize sun exposure.

“Bees tell time by temperature and sunlight,” Andi said while we walked. She pointed out a couple of plants. “Roses and goldenrod are great pollinator plants,” she added.

Students took turns using drills to attach the bee boxes to fence poles. They will monitor which nesting material is best. Next week they will build bumblebee habitats and create a bee watering station.

Ciara, front, and Layla, place cavity nesting material such as bamboo, in bee boxes students built to attract native pollinators at the Organic Farm School. Evan observes while Andi Kopit, who teaches the students, stands by.

Afterward the students cooled off in the sprinklers.

ALE students will host a Showcase Night June 1. The pollinator projects and what the students learned this year will be on display. Performances will include spoken word poetry, interpretive dance of pollinator and salmon life cycles and music. It takes place from 4-6 PM at the United Methodist Church.

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  1. Hello, Kate! Writing you from Oregon…I really enjoy these posts and photos except that it makes me pretty homesick for Whidbey! Happy to see that all is still well on the Isle of View!!!

    Molly Larson Cook

    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      Hi Molly, great hearing from you. We’ve lived on Whidbey 23 years, the longest we’ve ever lived in one place. It is hard to beat the ‘magic’ here. Hope you are well. Much love. Kate

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