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Opt outside: An outdoor education program at Balboa High gets students engaged in school

Claire Stremple
Balboa's WALC seniors in McLaren Park

If you live in the Bay Area, chances are you know about Golden Gate Park. But you might not have heard about San Francisco’s second largest park:McLaren.

It borders the Portola District, a few blocks from KALW. And students from nearby high schools help restore McLaren Park as part of their studies. It’s an element of an environmental education program taking root in San Francisco schools.


Hugo Malta is a senior at Balboa High School. He has two-foot garden clippers in his hands. We’re shoulder deep in a prickly thicket of coyote bush. Hugo’s friends Victor Cortez and Jose Enriquez are helping him reach some top branches.

“We’re killing this poison ivy,” says Hugo. “Cape ivy. English ivy? English ivy. Because it’s an invasive species. We’re doing this so we can have more space for native species.”

Hugo, Victor, and Jose are WALC students. WALC stands for The Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative. Learning out here in the brambles is really different from where students spend most of their school days.

Balboa High is just down the hill from McLaren Park. In a neighborhood of single family homes, it’s a three story, salmon colored, Spanish-style building. It looks stately and institutional, and it’s hard to get into. It’s surrounded by a big iron fence, and I had to walk around the block to find the opening. There’s even a guard sitting by the front door. The building is imposing, and not just for visitors.

“It feels like we’re in prison because all the gates they keep us locked in,” says senior Paola Hueso. “We can’t even go outside to eat lunch because they don’t trust us, and it makes us feel like we’re still little kids, but we’re not.”

That prison-feel probably isn’t what the administration has in mind. Still, Hugo Malta and his peers say too many lessons they learn in class don’t apply to the real world.

“After four years of waking up thinking, 'This sucks,' then I’m going to go into the world thinking, 'This sucks,'” says Hugo.


That’s where WALC comes in.

In the mid-1990s, Balboa had very low test scores. The district took some pretty extreme measures to fix them — fired the entire faculty, started a free breakfast service, and created small learning communities like WALC. Instead of potentially getting lost in the crowd of a big school, WALC kids grow with the same cohort and teachers for a couple of years. For Victor Cortez it makes a difference:

“You feel more connected to them than the other people there, push yourself to do a little better,” he reflects. “You put more effort into it.”

Once a month, WALC seniors get on a city bus and go to McLaren Park instead of their morning classes. They get academic credit for hours spent restoring the habitat,and it also counts as community service. It’s a big shift from the spiked iron gates of campus to the windswept expanse of a verdant hillside, even though it’s only a mile and a half away.

Senior Andy Huong offers me a nutrition bar from the snack bag as we we hike up over Sidalsea Hill. We’re looking down at striking views of the city and the Bay, and waiting for a Recreation and Park gardener to come meet us.

“I just think as kids, we should be able to do this. Because we’re still trying to explore and we don’t want to just sit in a room all day,” he says.

Andy and his classmates help gardeners with restoration projects, like removing invasive blackberry bushes and planting native ferns. Today, they’re removing invasive plants — prickly ox tongue, wild radish, and an insidious ivy that chokes the life out of native willow trees and coyote bushes.

Licia DeMeo, a Recreation and Park gardener, is the brains behind many restoration projects. She says WALC is different from other programs because “people aren’t telling them everything. They're finding butterflies or birds or hawks. Or worms, whatever. And it’s just more spontaneous and natural.”

Hugo Malta says that one of the major lessons they are taught in WALC is to have a sense of place. “You have love for yourself and your environment,” he says. “So this is why they probably take us out to McLaren. It’s our city. We live here.”

The students say their outdoor experiences actually make them think a lot more about what is important in San Francisco.

“The gentrification problem, police brutality,” Hugo says, “it kind of makes you wake up and realize that these are things in your city that you know you have to be aware of.”

His friend JoséEnriquez chimes in.

“WALC educates you on all that. What’s going on around you.”

Malta adds, “Its the first time I’ve taken the material from the classroom and put it out in the real world. I’ve like taken what I’ve learned and used it in the real world.”

It isn’t all scenic work in the hills of San Francisco. On Wednesdays when they aren’t in McLaren Park, the students work to improve their campus. At Balboa, they run the recycling and composting program. I ask Emerson Geisbrecht which he prefers.

“Probably this one. Because we have to deal with a lot of moldy old gross food,” he says. “The compost specifically. Recycling, its just a bunch of used paper, but compost can be pretty gross.”

This is also where traditional academics come in. Most students don’t write really long papers until college. But WALC seniors do. They write 15-page papers about environmental concepts. Emerson says the program keeps it manageable.

“It’s a 15-page paper but we have three months to write it. So we really get to develop it and do it to the best of our ability,” he says.

Hugo adds, “Which is cool because when you're done and read it all back to yourself its like, 'Whoa, I wrote that?'”

WALC gives students like Hugo Malta a different outlook on what education can be. Remember when he said he wakes up every morning thinking: “This sucks”? I ask him if that is also true on McLaren days.

“No, actually!" he says. "When it’s a McLaren day I wake up like 'Alright, this is a McLaren day, let’s go!'”