Students Care for Their City Parks

Over the years, we’ve published many articles about service-learning projects that were completed with support from PLT’s GreenWorks! grants. Our series continues with these two stories of students—from Santa Cruz, California and Madisonville, Louisiana—who worked with their local community to help restore their city’s parks. The grants, matched locally, were used to purchase tools, seeds, and other needed supplies.


Santa Cruz students restore garden outside museum
Santa Cruz students restore a garden outside the Natural History Museum

Taking Care of Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz

Despite being more than 100 years old, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is still finding new ways to educate and engage with the community.

For the Earth Stewards Project (ESP), the museum partnered with Ponderosa High School and Career Training Center’s alternative education program for teens. The students gained work skills (and school credit!) while conducting native plant restoration and trail maintenance. They planted 840 native plants, removed 736 pounds of invasive species, treated 2,779 feet of trail for erosion, and installed 64 feet of fencing at Harvey West Park, a local park.

“The project provided transformative nature-based activities to learn STEM subjects, environmental stewardship, accountability, and a strong work ethic, said the project’s coordinator, Felicia Van Stolk. “By offering hands-on projects outdoors, where students can collaborate and socialize, ESP motivates students to participate in community impact on a regular basis.”

Several Earth Stewards went on to become Museum interns or rangers in the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department. Hiring partners like Groundswell Coast Ecology have been impressed with the students’ achievements. The museum received a Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Sustainability for the Earth Steward Project.

“I learned how to manage and motivate people. I felt pride in getting the job done,” said one student who then worked with the city, also noting, “I never knew that there are more than one thousand different species of grass!”

Van Stolk warned that collaboration with community organizations adds a layer of complication. Nonetheless, “collaboration is worthwhile because we model for students how working together can achieve excellent results.”



Tree planting in Madisonville, LA

Restoring Pine Street Park in Madisonville, Louisiana

Students at Madisonville Junior High School, located in St. Tammany Parish’s Madisonville, Louisiana, bridged the gap between classroom learning and applying that knowledge on the ground. Working with a Master Gardener, they learned how to prepare a tree for planting, select the best location, and maintain it. They focused their efforts on a local park, Pine Street Park.

“They all admitted that it is one thing to learn about it [in a classroom]. It is another thing to do what you have learned,” said teacher Stephen Cefalu.

Madisonville’s project director and the mayor were on board from day one, Cefalu said. “We worked together deciding on what to purchase to plant. They helped with the three bids that we needed to get. They picked up the plants and trees. They had town workers there to assist the students, and they oversaw the entire operation.” The mayor acknowledged the students’ efforts publicly at a weekly council meeting and a school parents’ group.

Cefalu gave this advice. “The first thing that I would do is to brain-storm with the administration as to what your school could consider doing to enhance their local community,” he said. “Why not ask some responsible students for their input?”

From a handful of possible projects, the administrators selected their top priority. “If continuing the projects means contacting local officials, then I would meet with them and discuss your project ideas and get their input,” Cefalu added. “You want to make sure that if you get grant funding, that all parties are on board and on the same page.”

Students are now looking at other places to enhance in Madisonville, and according to Cefalu, they’re ready to get their hands dirty.

To date, Cefalu has raised over $13,000 in grants that have been used to enhance the restoration of Madisonville’s Pine Street Park further. With this additional funding, students have been able to complete three purchasing and planting field trips to Pine Street Park.



Read more stories of past PLT GreenWorks! projects—along with teachers’ tips—for environmental service-learning projects that link classroom learning to the real world.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula writes on environmental, education, and health topics and is a regular contributor to The Branch Newsletter. Visit her website at