Children transplanting plants

A Gault Elementary School student prepares a native plant she grew from seed. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Guardians of the Ocean

Stories from the Blue: Susan Dahlgren, Gault School

Susan Dahlgren
Photo: Bill Henry

NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools make a commitment to protecting their local watersheds, ocean, and national marine sanctuaries. As of 2019, more than 110 schools have implemented a school- or community-based conservation project to fulfill that promise. Under the leadership of Life Lab teacher Susan Dahlgren, one school, Gault Elementary School, has been making a huge difference for their local beach and the nearby Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Read on for Dahlgren’s Story from the Blue.

Five years ago, two Gault parents who are seabird ecologists asked if I was interested in growing some native plants at the school. I like native plants and hadn’t grown them before, so I thought it was a great idea. They then connected me with Bill Henry of the nonprofit Groundswell, which works with communities to restore California’s coastline, and we applied for an Ocean Guardian School grant.

As part of their Ocean Guardian Stewardship project, the third-graders grow native plants such as California poppy, buckwheat, seaside daisy, yarrow, and lizardtail in our school greenhouse every September. They learn about the benefits of native plants and the hazards of ice plant, a non-native plant found throughout California that is originally from South Africa. People thought this plant would help stabilize the land where they were putting in railroads. But instead, it’s heavy, has shallow roots, and causes erosion. It blankets the coast so native plants can’t grow. It provides hiding places for rats but doesn’t provide food or shelter for any of our native species.

Through the Ocean Guardian School Program, Gault students are becoming empowered to make positive changes in their environment.”
—Dr. Bill Henry

Each December, the students walk to Seabright State Beach and plant the native plants. In the spring, they return and conduct a plant transect comparing the area that’s been restored to the unrestored area. Students see the differences not only in the plant diversity and plant growth, but also the diversity of animal species. In the barren sand or the ice plant area, they may see ants or a spider. But in the native plant areas, they find lizards, bees, beetles, butterflies, and birds. The students see the difference that coastal restoration can make.

In the first year of the project, the seedlings we planted at the beach grew a foot or two. We only water them once, and then they’re left to Mother Nature. Since we’ve had a drought in California for several years, the plants’ survival is evidence they’re adapted to this climate and belong here. Now, the plants that we planted five years ago are mature: they’ve flowered, gone to seed, and are reproducing.

Children taking measurements on a beach
A Gault student collects data at Seaside State Beach. Photo: Bill Henry

Several bird species live at our beach now, including white-crowned sparrows and black phoebes. A burrowing owl—a species of concern—overwintered last year and has returned again this year; it’s claimed its home. Threatened snowy plovers are nesting in the dunes again.

Some of our students live near the beach and visit with their families, teaching them about the plants and the environment. Other students have presented to the city council about the importance of biodiversity along our coast. All of our students paint colorful signs to educate the public about habitat restoration. Gault students live next to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and now they’re learning that they can have an impact. They can change the environment for the better.