Metropolis: Wednesday, November 14, 2002
Destroying a Garden to Beautify

A trustee calls students’ plantings an eyesore.


It may have been Evan Brown’s first lesson in real world vs. theory, but it’s one he’ll remember.

“Adults tell us to protect the rainforest and care for the environment and then they come out and destroy our own plants right in front of our eyes. It doesn’t make sense to teach us one thing and do another,” the 13-year-old said.

For Krista Marino, also 13, it was the lost butterflies. “We’ve been raising butterflies to set them free in the garden,” the eighth-grader said. “And now they’ll die, because there’re no plants for them to live on. ... We’re really upset.”

Krista and Evan were among the students of award-winning science teacher Denise Gordon who watched helplessly last Friday as their gardens — different plots for butterfly-attracting plants, perennials, herbs, vegetables, and native grasses — at the Fort Worth school district’s Applied Learning Academy on Camp Bowie were turned into wasteland by district maintenance workers in little more than an hour.

“Upset” is an understatement of the outrage expressed since then by a large number of parents, students, and teachers.

The shock was made worse, students said, because there was no warning. “Suddenly, we looked out and they were just ripping everything up and throwing it all in a dumpster,” one student said. “I told God this is not right, don’t let them do this.”

Angry teachers who tried to stop the carnage were told by the workers that they were acting under orders of one school board member, Elaine Klos, whose district includes the Academy.

What was ripped up that day, however, may turn out to be more than the native plant species that the students had nurtured and studied for almost three years as the only Texas participants in a Fulbright Foundation environmental project for science students, under way in 26 states and Japan.

Plants lost at the Academy will be replaced, according to Associate Superintendent Walter Dansby, who called the district workers’ action a “terrible mistake that must never, never happen again” — but the children’s distrust of the adult world may take much longer to be repaired. And Klos will never be trusted again, some of her one-time supporters said.

Klos, in her fourth term on the board, told Fort Worth Weekly she’s hanging it up anyway. “This will be my last term,” she said. “I’m not going to seek re-election.” Her phone has rung off the hook, she said, with calls from outraged parents over the destruction of the garden. “Eight years is enough to give to this community,” she said, “and to take on so much grief.”

Klos apologized for the loss of the gardens but defended her decision at the same time. The native gardens, she said, have always been “eyesores and little more than weed patches.” Klos acknowledged that she bypassed the school’s principal and Dansby, who has been head of maintenance for about six months, and went directly to maintenance supervisor Tommy Ingram, asking him to send workers to “clean those gardens out.” Ultimately, she said, the blame lay with the students and their teachers for not tending the gardens properly.

“I have been frustrated,” she said, “with the unkemptness of the entire campus.” But, she said, she never intended for the plants to be destroyed. “I guess I didn’t make myself clear. I only wanted them to clean out the weeds.” Still, she said, “The looks of the campuses in my district are my responsibility, and kids need to be taught early on that they must keep the outside areas around public buildings neat and clean.”

For parents such as Kellie Brown, mother of Evan and one of the dozens of parents who called Klos, the trustee’s action was not only outrageous but improper behavior for a board member. School trustees, she said, should not have the authority to do what Klos did, which was nothing less than arbitrarily destroying a teaching project. “This is an outrage.” But, sadly, she said, “it’s an outrage that’s become all too typical in a district that just forges ahead with whatever they want to do with no regard for the kids.”

Klos’ decision to end her time on the board is welcome news, said Brown, a former Klos supporter who had already become disillusioned with the trustee.

Klos’ action also drew criticism from Betty Ressell, chief auditor of the state comptroller’s office, who oversaw the performance audit of Fort Worth schools more than a year ago. “It is not apropos for a board member to give a direct order” to district personnel, Ressel said. “The board members are policy makers. ... No independant board member can act aside from the board as a whole.” Trustees “have to act collectively,” or not at all, she said. Other districts have been cited by the comptroller, she said, for just such improprieties.

Debby Stein, a community activist and unsuccessful trustee candidate, said that the garden fiasco, “which seems to be a terrible misunderstanding,” underlines the danger in board members getting involved in day-to-day decisions for the schools in their district.

Stein, whose two children went through the Academy, was sickened by the loss of the garden, she said, as much for what it meant to the students as for the prestige it brought to the Applied Learning Program and the district itself.

Gordon’s science class had nurtured the native plants under the Fulbright environmental science project. Gordon received about $8,000 in grant money from such environmental groups as the National Wildlife Federation to put the project together — money that may have to be paid back, Gordon and others said.

School records show that Gordon is an exceptional teacher with a litany of awards, including Fort Worth’s Clean City Teacher of the Year in 1997 and FWISD Teacher of the Year in 2001. A veteran of the Peace Corps, she has done environmental studies in Japan as a Fulbright Memorial Fund teacher and in Costa Rica in the Woodrow Wilson Environmental Project.

One year, her students raised vegetables that were harvested and donated to local soup kitchens. Her students’ gardens, she said in an interview for the FWISD newsletter, follow her teaching philosophy that “Application from the real world into the classroom is what we should seek and do each day.”

Watching their carefully tended gardens being destroyed, however, was not the kind of real-world applications her students had come to expect. Their rosemary and Texas sage plants, antique rose bushes, sunflowers, bridal wreath, verbena, lantana, and other perennial plants were dug out by their roots and thrown into the dumpster. Planters with benches were ripped out, along with steppingstones and even the pole-mounted bird feeders.

“This was a neat place to come,” student Michelle Gomez said. “We used to hang out here every morning to watch the birds and the butterflies.”

Now, all that’s left is dirt, and some mud on the faces of a few adults.

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