Former first lady visits Valley

PHARR — Third-graders at Geraldine Palmer Elementary school gathered Wednesday morning at their school library to greet visitors from Washington, D.C., Albuquerque, New Mexico and Dallas who were recognizing their school district for its habitat conservation efforts. Among the visitors was former first lady Laura Bush.

Bush helped found the organization Texan by Nature in 2011, aiming to help unite conservation groups or organizations with communities throughout the state. The group recognized the PSJA school district as a new Conservation Wrangler for its district-wide efforts to not only preserve the natural habitat of the Rio Grande Valley within its campuses but to use these areas as outdoor classrooms where students can learn the importance of maintaining the unique ecosystem of the region.

This is the first school district to receive the recognition district-wide, but the organization has designated the entire Valley as the Lower Rio Grande Valley Learning Landscape Collaborative to expand these efforts throughout the entire region.

“We’ve been in the process of either preserving or establishing urban habitats,” PSJA school district Superintendent Daniel King said. “These are learning gardens where our students can learn about the native plants, wildlife species, they can learn about the importance and value of these native species. … It’s important that we preserve what’s left and, wherever possible, that we re-establish the native habitat because it’s very important for the ecosystem here.”

The district began delving deeper into these efforts about five years ago, King said, when it hired habitat expert Allen Williams as the district’s native habitat specialist. Williams helped the district plan campus landscapes with native vegetation. So far, the district has created or preserved these spaces at close to 20 campuses, mainly elementary schools, but the plan is to grow the initiative to all 43 schools.

At Palmer Elementary, for example, the district opted not to cut down all vegetation before construction of the campus, he said. Instead, they designed around native plants and used existing trails around the campus. This not only decreased the cost for the district as far as purchasing new vegetation, but also saved money on maintenance costs since the plants better handle the climate and required less care.

“The idea is to have every campus in this district have a native habitat space, and we are very close to halfway through that,” King said, adding the district also has worked in collaboration with Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Quinta Mazatlán and the NationalButterflyCenter.

Having these protected spaces throughout the campus not only serves the students as a lesson, but it also helps sustain the entire ecosystem of the Valley, said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, who also visited the students Wednesday, adding he will be talking about Palmer Elementary throughout the country to share its example.

“There are about 6,000 schools across the country that have some kind of school yard habitat. This one that you built with Mr. Williams and Principal Gonzalez and Dr. King, is the best one in the entire country,” O’Mara told the students who listened attentively. “We need to figure out ways to take the incredible lessons that you’ve all learned by having such an amazing school … to help other kids get excited.”