Sustainability is a concept that has begun to permeate the public’s consciousness as well as that of commercial and educational sectors.

Westsiders have long been in the vanguard regarding clean air, recycling and preventing water runoff pollutants from entering the ocean. And a Westside magnet school recently celebrated the extension of involving its students in an educational program that brings them in direct contact with nature at an early age.

Parents, school administrators and local environmentalists joined dignitaries from the Los Angeles Unified School District March 19th at the groundbreaking of Westside Leadership Magnet School’s “Leadership Garden” in Marina del Rey, where students will learn about gardening, growing plants and food.

The Leadership Garden functions like other learning gardens that have been established at other schools.

Principal Cyril Baird is aware of the beachside community’s history with conservation and is trying to make that a part of his school’s curriculum, albeit in a very unique way.

“We’re trying to make (sustainability and conservation) a reality for everyone that’s involved,” he explained.

LAUSD school board member Steve Zimmer, who attended the ceremony, sees the geography of the western part of his district as an excellent location to involve children with nature.

“Here on the Westside we have a tremendous opportunity to be able to use the rare natural resources that are in our backyard, said Zimmer, who represents Marina del Rey and Venice. “I think what’s happening at Westside Leadership is the recognition that the four walls of a classroom is something entirely different on the Westside.”

The Leadership Garden is a continuation, in many ways, of the school’s mission to give its youths the experience of an “outdoor classroom experience” that began last fall with an initiative with the Ballona Institute, school officials say.

The Playa del Rey-based environmental organization invited the school’s students to assist them in a restoration effort that the group launched last year for the Grand Canal Lagoon, which lies in back of the magnet school’s campus.

The youngsters learned how the lagoon’s ecosystem functions from Ballona Institute’s biologist Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, helped pull weeds and were taught how to identify native plants and flowers.

“We are fortunate to be adjacent to the Grand Canal, part of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem, and to have a strong partnership with Ballona Institute,” said Pauline Lyders, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Westside Leadership. “The students play an active role in the care and maintenance of these plants while learning about the local ecosystem.”

Baird said in past years the magnet had been shunned by locals as a blight on the neighborhood, but that has changed in recent years thanks in part to the dedicated work of the K-8 school’s neighbors, teachers and Westside Boost, a parents booster group that conceived the learning garden.

“We’ve widened our concentric circle of involvement as far as we can,” he said. “And now I think that we have the support of just about all of the neighborhood associations around us.

“And that’s the whole point,” Baird continued. “We don’t want this to be something that is separate and exclusive to us. We want all of our neighbors to know that this is their neighborhood.”

Van de Hoek also credited Westside Boost, and especially its president Laura Alice, for getting the school’s faculty involved in the Grand Lagoon restoration process.

“Laura was very instrumental in this partnership with us in the Grand Canal Lagoon,” he said. “The Leadership Garden will be a great experience for the children in growing food that they can eat, as well as being connected to the soil.”

Lyders, an architect who designed the school’s green master plan, agrees.

“The Leadership Garden will provide our children with the opportunity for hands-on learning of gardening through science, art, math, and language,” she said. “An outdoor classroom area will allow children to work with their teachers on projects within the Leadership Garden. Children will plant edibles that they will have a chance to taste and use in cooking. They will care for native plants that connect them to our local ecosystem.”

Lyders praised Baird for his leadership and for facilitating the implementation of sustainable concepts at the school.

“Principal Baird is extremely supportive of parents’ efforts to affect change on the campus. As our leader, his role has been to work with LAUSD to make sure our campus beautification efforts continue to move forward,” Lyders said. “Both he and Thomas Bangert, our master gardener, have been critical to the success we have achieved thus far. Both value the opportunity for hands-on outdoor learning that the Leadership Garden will provide.”

Zimmer said having a collection of people working on the garden says a lot about Westside Boost, the students and the school’s administration.

“This is one of the many projects that I’m happy to support because it shows that teachers, kids, parents, and community resources together can redefine what we mean by the classroom,” Zimmer said. “The possibilities are really limitless.”

Baird said the Leadership Garden could also serve as a recruiting tool for local parents and other students outside the area to visit the school to see what it has to offer.

“This is definitely one of our linchpin concepts of attracting the local community and anyone who wants to benefit from a school that’s located in such a beautiful area,” the principal said. “In terms of greening our campus, that’s what we’re primarily trying to do.”