ROBERT “ROY” VAN DE HOEK (right, with hat) helps a group of children from nearby Westside Leadership Magnet School with watering plants at Grand Canal Lagoon. The students are assisting the Ballona Institute in its restoration efforts at the lagoon. (Argonaut photo by T.W. Brown)

Science is a subject that is typically taught indoors, with books, computer-generated images, beakers and Bunsen burners.

But for students at a local K-8 school, their recent discovery of a historic ecosystem, coupled with a Playa del Rey-based environmental organization’s involvement in a nearby habitat restoration project, has turned a 1,000-square foot area behind the school into the students’ outdoor science laboratory.

Restoration efforts at the Grand Lagoon in Venice by the Ballona Institute began in earnest last month, approximately 500 feet from the playground of Westside Leadership Magnet School on Pacific Avenue. Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the institute, took note and broached the possibility of incorporating Westside Leadership’s students in the project with the school’s principal and a few parent leaders, who immediately agreed.

“It’s great for that supplemental classroom, so there’s that academic component,” explained Westside Leadership Principal Cyril Baird. “In addition, because we are a leadership school, there’s the social component of having the kids be responsible and be leaders of a community.

“That’s what we’re trying to establish here and that’s why we’re trying to reach out to have partnerships with various community aspects, like here on the wetlands.”

Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, biologist and co-director at the environmental organization, says that working with the children on the Grand Lagoon restoration is a special opportunity for both the youngsters and the institute.

“We have done a little outreach with a few children’s groups through our nature story with nature walks, and we feel really blessed to have the school, the parents and the children involved,” he said.

Baird said that it was a “no-brainer” when the chance presented itself to have Westside Magnet’s students take part in Ballona Institute’s restoration efforts.

“We all know kids actually learn,” the principal said. “When you hear someone talk about something, you might remember a few things, but really it’s when you do it. Then when you teach someone else what you’ve just done, that’s when learning actually takes place.”

Laura Alice, the president of the school’s booster club, Westside Boost, says that the location of the magnet school was one of the prime reasons that she enrolled her six-year-old daughter there.

“I’m one of the fortunate people who gets to walk their child to school, and we always walk the Grand Canal all the way,” said Alice, who lives near the Windward Circle. “(Being a part of the restoration effort) is a wonderful opportunity for our kids.”

With the lagoon as a picturesque backdrop, Westside Leadership students have a unique opportunity that few children experience at such a young age — the chance to learn about an enduring ecosystem from nature experts, right in their own backyard.

Alice is conscious of the opportunity, not only for her daughter, but for her child’s classmates as well.

“For children who are not locals to have the opportunity to take part in a restoration project like this and then to take it home with them to their communities, it’s really amazing,” she said.

Approximately half of Westside Leadership’s students are from communities outside the Westside, and school officials say that a number of them have said that they had never seen the ocean or the wetlands before coming to the magnet school.

“We’re giving them real-life experience here,” Baird pointed out. “And for some of them, it’s really unique and they never would have had the opportunity to do it.”

The students receive an orientation on the history of the lagoon from van de Hoek and volunteers from the institute assist with some of the landscaping, planting and watering. Some classes have been to the lagoon on two occasions, and the visits will continue through December.

Baird says that his teachers have taken some of their classes to the lagoon to study botany and are thrilled to be taking part in the restoration project. Jennifer Naggar, who teaches science to seventh-graders at Westside Leadership, says that the lagoon and the surrounding wetlands provide her students with experiences akin to teaching in an outdoor classroom.

“It’s very good to see how science is practiced in the real world,” said Naggar. “We have already had our orientation and our class is looking forward to doing some hands-on work soon.”

Instructors who teach subjects other than science have also come to the lagoon to learn about the restoration.

“So they are in the middle of a learning experience as well,” van de Hoek said.

Alice, who runs an artist support services firm, noted that the location lends itself to an outdoor opportunity for both students and the teachers.

“It’s the best field trip they could take,” she said. “It’s right outside, you don’t need a bus, you don’t need to pack your lunch and you get amazing experts to help you navigate the landscape.

“Our kids can learn just about anything here,” Alice added. “Any (subject) applies.”

Van de Hoek said after the plants are in the ground, they will face a few tense months of survival, due to the fact that they must be watered by hand, because of the lack of an irrigation system.

“Up until next summer, they’re still going to have a delicate time ahead of them to get going,” said the biologist.

The collaboration is viewed by the school and the environmental organization as the beginning of an expanding partnership. A “green garden” is also in the works at the school, which is part of a master plan that will take place next year.

“The next steps, as I see it, will be for the students to take what they learn out here back with them into the classroom,” Baird explained. “We’re doing a design plan for the master plan for the school, and taking some of these native plantings would be part of that classroom experience as well.”

Alice credits van de Hoek with instilling a historical overview of the wetlands into the children as well as making learning about nature fun.

“He’s a shining star,” she said. “Roy is the pied piper of the Ballona Wetlands.”

Baird views the school’s relative anonymity as a plus.

“I see that as an advantage, as a treasure,” the principal said. “My ultimate goal is to have the school nestled within the environment and a place that you discover, a place that you stumble upon.

“Our hope is that Westside Leadership will be seen as the kind of school where kids do things, as well as talk about things.”

Alice is happy that she found Westside Leadership and with the partnership that her school has established with the Ballona Institute.

“I feel like the luckiest of the lucky,” she said.