There is a noticeable difference at Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice.

“The teachers are the same. The programs are the same,” says Westminster parent and outgoing booster club president Coby Dahlstrom. “The change is in perception, parent involvement and community awareness.”

The booster club, the Westminster Endowment Group also known as West End, is a non-profit that raises funds for areas of need including computer labs, after-school events, instructional support, field trips and gardens that have helped beautify the campus grounds.

Started in 2004, the West End merged with the school’s PTA (Parent Teacher Association) in 2009 to combine forces.

“The two groups ended up splitting our parent population,” says Dahlstrom. “Instead of motivating more people to join and, thereby handling both organizations, the same number of people had to do both.”

While the computer and math magnet school offers technology skill enhancement and hands-on project-based learning in the school’s curriculum and the arts program offers instruction in dance, theater, music and visual arts, it is the West End gardens that provide an even newer approach to learning.

Project Manager Nora Dvosin, a California certified master gardener, and LSLA/Garden Project Co-Manager Nancy Giffin approached the West End with their idea of a garden at the school.

“It is the mission of a master gardener to teach future generations of children to be proper stewards of the earth,” says Dahlstrom.

The garden has grown from 900 square feet to almost 6,000 square feet with help from students, parents, teachers, community volunteers and master gardeners Austin Draper and Emily Curd. The master plan, drawn by Venice architect Lewin Wertheimer, includes a reading garden, a deciduous tree forest, an orchard and a new 1,000-square foot garden for kindergarten students under the leadership of master gardener Salvatore Satullo.

The garden is used in conjunction with the students’ studies based on the learning curve for each grade level. For instance, third graders learn about the bodily system and nutrition and they plant crops that are important for cardiovascular health and good eating habits.

Another example is the fifth graders who learn about Colonial America. Their part of the garden is a replica of what the colonists would grow to sustain themselves and the art class paints the flowers. The fifth graders are the first grade to work in the garden in the fall.

“It’s not as exciting when you’re planting the seeds,” says Dahlstrom. “They are better able to focus on longer term goals and the smaller, more complicated work.”

By the end of the year the first graders are harvesting the crops. “It’s an amazing education,” Dahlstrom adds. “The kids live right by the beach and mountains, but Venice is an urban city. It’s beneficial to get their fingers in the dirt and feel the connection to the earth and it teaches them respect for recycling.”

It’s a “seed to table” experience by learning firsthand how food is grown and then tasting the fruits of their labor.

Joe Miller, owner of Joe’s Restaurant, comes once a month on Fridays to teach a fifth grade class in the garden and cooks what he harvests. “You’ve never seen kids wanting to eat vegetables so much,” says Dahlstrom.

There are many people and organizations responsible for the success of the Westminster Endowment Group. At the top of the list is principal Karen Brown, without whom the endowment wouldn’t have been able to attain its accomplishments, Dahlstrom says.

“Ms. Brown has been instrumental because, even if you have money and parents, LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) is like a brick wall trying to get something done if you don’t have the right people on your team,” she adds. “She has been great about facilitating the hoops we need to jump through to do things right.”

Westminster Elementary is a Title I school with students from economically disadvantaged families. “We have dual income working parents and not many who can dedicate themselves time-wise, but they get involved in ways they can,” says Dahlstrom.

There is a core group of about 20 parents who switch roles, whether it’s leadership or, one of the most important, grant writing.

“Funding is lacking in the California school system,” she adds. “Last year parents applied for grants, not all garden-related but for other activities too. Grant writing is difficult and can be intimidating and takes time, energy and dedication, but there’s money to be gotten from a lot of places.”

A beautification grant this year came from the Los Angeles Department of Public Works to fund the removal of asphalt as well as grading for an ecological water runoff area to allow rainwater to return to the local water table rather than down the sewer. Another grant from the Venice Neighborhood Council will provide benches for the garden.

Any donation is appreciated. Dahlstrom acknowledges the many Venice businesses that have made contributions, including the Rose Café, 3 Square Bakery, Abbot’s Habit, Abbot’s Pizza, Fruit Gallery and Whole Foods. Other supporters include organizations such as the Venice Chamber of Commerce and the Abbot Kinney Merchants Association, as well as former school board member Marlene Canter and current board member Steve Zimmer.

Dahlstrom says memories of the alleged gang war strife in the neighborhood as well as when Westminster was on probation due to low test scores hang like a dark cloud.

“If you live in fear like some newer families in Venice, you don’t realize that Westminster is a beautiful melting pot with incredibly talented children with great parents and great teachers,” says Dahlstrom. “We’re trying to get the word out to change the notion that people have from years ago.”

The Westminster Endowment Group creates community involvement that helps put the school in a positive light and encourages Venice parents to take a closer look when choosing education for their children. To learn more, sign up for the newsletter at westminsterendowmentgroup@gmail.com/ for up-to-the-minute activities at the school and ways to help.

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