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School of Dirt
Children at the Calabasas Klubhouse delight in engaging with living soil. The school began composting in 2019. Since then two tons of food has been diverted resulting in more than half a ton of compost soil. All photos by Cecilie Stuart
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School of Dirt 

Tiny hands reach eagerly into the cool soil. “A bug!” “I see a worm!” The students clamor to touch the tiny invertebrates in their soil science lesson at Calabasas Klubhouse. Instructor Calli Goldstein, a Full Circle Compost’s garden and compost expert, shows the students how they are turning their school’s snacks and lunch scraps into microbial rich soil. 

“This soil will save our atmosphere by putting the carbon back into our soil instead of into the air we all breathe,” instructs Calli. She entices her T-K students to smell the soil, as what was a sandwich just a few months ago, now smells “like a rainforest.” 

Soil Science in K-college education is all the rage and for good reason. Methane generated from food deposited in our landfills represents the third most devastating origin of greenhouse gas. LA County’s sustainability goal is to divert 75% of our food waste from our landfills in the next three years. Yes, you can put your scraps into your green waste bin and your local waste hauler will truck it down the road to a commercial facility and break it down and sell the soil it creates back to you, but at The Love School, compost creates not only nutrient-rich soil which replenishes the school’s garden but also the hearts of the students. 

Did you know globally we’re only 50 years from being out of topsoil? This school’s regenerative climate revolution improves soil quality, imparts the love of the land, gardening, and the reverence of microbial creatures which are great but quite small. 

Calli Goldstein introduces her students to the earthy smell of composted food waste. The Love School started their compost program in 2020, diverting two tons of food and creating more than half a ton of rich compost soil.
Manzanita students gather and weigh the school’s discarded food scraps as part of the school’s effort to engage young people to be connected with nature and develop into land stewards on the 20-acre property.

The study of soil tells us that there are so many billions of microbes in each handful of soil, a world vaster than the ocean and wildly interesting to STEM students. The LA Stem Collective, is an association of educators throughout Los Angeles, at which several of our local science non-profits reach young nature scientists. The RCD, Full Circle Compost, TreePeople, and the Aquarium of the Pacific are just a few of the local organizations which provide city-wide STEM programming enrichment on zoom. 

FCC teaches 3-5 graders how to make a compost right at their desk, layering carbon (browns), nitrogen (greens), water and air to create soil from their breakfast scraps in just a few weeks. The students use this soil to sprout garlic and beans, study the water cycle, photosynthesis, and the microbiology of soil. The take-away is that healthy soil regenerates our climate by the mycorrhizal fungal networks sinking carbon and nutrients into our plants and soil and making our food more delicious at the same time. 

Master educators EJ Johnson, or Chevy J, as her beloved students call her, has envisioned a school sustainability system where students, faculty and parents reconnect through soil.
“This helps us grow stronger ties to where we live and how we gently tend our land,” says Chevy J. Her Manzanita School’s outdoor classroom in the garden develops a sense of wonder at the natural world, something we lose with increasing technology all while diverting the entire lunch program food waste every day. It turns out there is a major personal benefit to compost as well. She quoted a recent Forbes article, “Digging in the Dirt”,  that reported that serotonin is released when humans breathe in the rich moist smell of soil, “inhaling microbes can stimulate serotonin production, which can make you feel relaxed and happier.”

It’s in our DNA to feel better around soil. Manzanita School knows this and is the standout example of what land stewardship can do for the environment and the future of education. Their entire curriculum centers around deep nature connection and environmental science which fosters a student body who know who they are, where they come from and where they are going.

Each week students tend the 20-acre native property, engage in permaculture practices on their quarter-acre farm, learning what Manzanita naturalist Natalie Bartlett calls “Big Farm Concepts.” 

How to grow organic food and propagate natives, create large hot compost piles to increase soil diversity and be able to effectively plant a fruit tree.  It turns out that this innovative spark of sustainability education is highly sought after. Manzanita was accredited by WASC in record time, has expanded their programs to K-12, and boasts several high school graduates achieving full-ride scholarships to Warren Wilson College, Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, and UC Berkeley and beyond.  This proves that soil sustainability can be sustainable!

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