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Verde Elementary

‘It’s just a beautiful experience’: Community groups plant trees to make Verde school greener.

on December 3, 2022

For years, even on hot mornings and afternoons, Verde Elementary School students have spent their recess and physical education periods on a cracked and sun-drenched blacktop — a wide open space with colored lines drawing volleyball courts and soccer fields, a running track along the edge.

But the school will soon live up to its colorful name, with green scenery to cover the blacktop and shade the kids. Last month, volunteers from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and 100K Trees for Humanity planted 27 trees at Verde, which is on Giaramita Street in Richmond

“The blacktop heats up to about 140 degrees, and these kids are playing out in a 100-plus degree heat; they are experiencing climate change on a day-to-day basis,” said Danner Doud-Martin, director of Haas Campus Sustainability who is leading the tree planting.

Verde Elementary
Children play on blacktop during recess at Verde Elementary School in Richmond. (Leqi Zhong)

The project was conceived by Haas students who were working on environmental justice from a waste perspective. Based on 2019 data, they found that Haas had printed 4 million pages of paper yearly and that UC Berkeley usually hauls waste materials to a landfill at West Richmond. After returning to in-person instruction in August 2021, the students set a goal to plant 400 trees in Richmond, to offset and take responsibility for the printing waste disposed of in the community.

A few months later, during a planting close to the landfill in West Richmond, Doud-Martin noticed an elementary school nearby with kids running on a bare, expansive blacktop. On the other side of the school’s fence, a warehouse is scheduled to be built. Doud-Martin reached out to the school principal to offer a partnership. 

“I said, ‘Hey, we’re trying to plant trees and we’d love to plant them with you,’” Doud-Martin recalled.

“That was really serendipitous in a way,” said Eric Acosta-Verprauskus, Verde’s principal. “I just can’t be any more grateful.”

He said the school doesn’t have the resources to implement its vision for the playground. But it’s happening, thanks to UC Berkeley, 100K Trees and others who have pitched in.

Verde Elementary
Volunteers plant 27 saplings at Verde Elementary School in Richmond (Leqi Zhong)

The funding for the tree planting project comes from the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, a nonprofit that diverts waste materials from landfills to low-cost art and education supplies, through a grant from Cal Fire to plant 350 trees. Doud-Martin estimated the cost of last month’s cultivation of 27 trees to be approximately $7,000. 

“There’re trucks we had to get to move all the huge planter boxes and dirt,” she said. “It’s not cheap, but absolutely worth every bit of it because of what they do for our environment and help the kids find shade.”

Justin Johnson, who is dean of Student Success at Verde as well as the athletic director, organizes monthly tournaments and encourages students to participate in sports, which he believes could incentivize students to perform better in classrooms. But during hot days, he needs to constantly remind students to stay hydrated and sit down or go inside.

Verde has 386 students, of which 97% come from low-income households and 70% are English language learners, according to West Contra Costa Unified School District data. It is the only K-8 school in the neighborhood. Four years ago, the school added seventh grade and then eighth because parents wanted to keep siblings at the same school for longer.

Data shows that Verde students’ test scores and academic progress are below the state average. Acosta-Verprauskus explained that lots of Verde parents are working three jobs and can’t spend as much time as they would like helping their children with school work or engaging with teachers. There also are language barriers, immigration issues and trauma that students, caregivers and staff are often dealing with. 

“I think our goal is really to honor our caregivers and their work and effort among some really hard living conditions, and to do the absolute best we can for their children,” Acosta-Verprauskus said, adding that his teachers try to prove everyday to parents that “we’re here for their kids and support their education.”

“We’re right here in the middle of the Bay Area where there is some of the most incredible wealth and privilege anywhere on planet Earth, we’re just three miles from it,” he said. “But those privileges and options, unfortunately, just aren’t finding themselves to many of our students and families.”

Verde Elementary
Danner Doud-Martin (left), director of Haas Campus Sustainability; Amos White, founder of 100K Trees for Humanity; and Eric Acosta-Verprauskus, Verde Elementary School principal. (Leqi Zhong)

During the tree planting, two parents with a stroller came by and asked in Spanish if the project was part of the end-of-semester celebration typically held at the school. After a staff member translated the question, Acosta-Verprauskus explained that since the pandemic, the school hasn’t held the celebration, which included student performances and holiday songs. He said he’s had to ask teachers several times this school year to stay after hours and did not want to impose on them more than  necessary. 

In the playground, the Haas students plan to replace fencing and build a new gate connecting the schoolyard with a grass field next to the blacktop. The city recently agreed to let the kids use the field, and the fence will ensure their safety.

The Haas crew’s short-term goal is to plant a second round of 30 trees to create a green barrier between Verde’s playground and the soon-to-be-built warehouse next door. In the long term, the organizers are exploring the possibility of replacing the blacktop and planting more trees in the ground rather than in planters. 

Doud-Martin said she is trying to engage Haas real estate students who can help with construction permits.

It’s the fourth time Haas has planted saplings with 100K Trees for Humanity, a Black-led urban reforestation organization that is devoted to accelerating tree planting in cities.

“Partnering with Haas is amazing just because of the initiative. This is the face of tomorrow’s business students,” said Amos White, 100K Trees for Humanity’s founder. “I’m all on board because it’s when business takes the lead on environmentalism that the transformation is happening.” 

Verde Elementary
Verde Elementary School in Richmond (Leqi Zhong)

As volunteers mixed the dirt, loosened the soil for tree roots, and painted the exterior of the planters, Verde kids were running and laughing on the blacktop behind them. 

Acosta-Verprauskus said the children were interested and excited to see the trees being delivered. 

“We had students over there touching the leaves, touching the bark, asking what type of tree it was” he said. 

“I mean, it’s just a beautiful experience.”

People of Richmond: How would you improve WCCUSD schools?

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