A once neglected plot of land at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester is being transformed into a place where students will soon be able to supplement their indoor classroom lessons outside during the spring.

Approximately 150 people, including students, parents, teachers and members of the L.A. Conservation Corps arrived at the middle school campus Monday, Jan. 17, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. They dug holes, moved dirt and measured out plots for the school’s learning garden, which Orville Wright administrators say will enhance the students’ learning experience.

“Caring, loving, community” is how Orville Wright Principal Dr. Kenneth Pride described what he was witnessing as the sound of shovels and wheelbarrows echoed around him.

“This is total dedication by our staff, and an amazing collaboration between staff, faculty and students,” he said.

Sixth-grader Dana Balant came to the event with a friend to help her classmates. “I think it’s great to help out, and I think the learning garden will be a great contribution to the school,” she said.

There are also plans to create an outdoor amphitheater where teachers will be able to bring their students on sunny days. “It will almost be like going on a nature hike without having to leave the safety of the campus and the community,” Pride said.

Students and faculty also painted over a sixth-grade classroom, where one of several murals will be painted.

Tree People, an environmental nonprofit organization that helps communities care for and plant trees, pledged to supply fruit trees for the learning garden.

Special Projects Forest Manager Julie Prejean of Tree People said Orville Wright submitted an application for trees to be planted in their garden in December

“In March they will be planting four fruit trees, two plum and two apricot,” she explained.

The non-profit distributes approximately 6,000 trees annually, Prejean said, and will distribute more to the surrounding neighborhoods as well.

Paula Cohen, a sixth grade teacher at Orville Wright, was one of the primary movers and shakers behind the greening initiative.

“I think we should name our first tree after one of the students and have him personally place the tree in the ground,” she said.

Pride said the turnout and the collaboration on the learning garden was an enriching experience for him.

“The school is about more than just education; it’s about participation in our society,” said Pride, who is in his first year at Orville Wright. “We feel that we need to help these young people become citizens of the community, and you just don’t do that by sitting in a class working on one subject. You also teach them to relate to others.”

Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, told the students and faculty that it was conducive to the spirit of King that they were working on a community project for the benefit of many. Zimmer also said the leadership of LAUSD’s Facilities Management has undertaken the challenge of working on a myriad of projects like Orville Wright’s.

“It’s not only about building schools; it’s not only about renovating schools; it’s about making our schools the greenest schools in the nation,” he said. “Whatever happens to a school happens to a community, and what happens to a community happens to a school.”

Representatives from the Westchester-Playa Education Foundation, which helped obtain a beautification grant several years ago for the area that the learning garden will occupy, thanked the students and community members who participated in breaking ground on the community garden.

“I just want to say Westchester rocks,” said Westchester-Playa Education Foundation President Kelly Kane.

Pride, who was the assistant principal at Westchester High School last year, said having an outdoor learning environment will not only enhance the students’ experience but their instructors’ learning perspectives as well. “The more senses that you engage in the learning process, the higher the retention, plain and simple,” the principal said.

Tree People also supports the concept of the outdoor classroom, where students have the opportunity to commune with nature during school hours.

“Teaching about the seasons, teaching about history, teaching about science, is what we’re all striving for throughout Los Angeles County, I think,” Prejean said. “And trees are an incredible part of that.”

Many of the students appeared to be as enthusiastic about the learning garden and the improvements as the adults were.

“I think it’s great to take something and make it beautiful because it will help everyone else benefit from that,” sixth-grader Dana said. “I love trees. I think they’re wonderful, and they give us fruit and oxygen.”