|Hello Dear Waters friends, |
This is part 2 of yesterday’s message answering some of the inaccurate comments made on Waters Facebook page.
Don’t say the ecology program is being destroyed
“Mistakes” made by Waters Today
Voice and CPS Miscellaneous employee
Before we go there, I need to tell you that I got a message from the Principal today saying that he is sticking with his decisions, and the ecology program and garden will go on with or without me. There you go. Bold statement. Can you make a bold statement? That the Garden and Program belong to US: The people who created it, fund it, the people who fund CPS? We are looking for any and every way to influence the LSC, the Alderman and State Representative and Senator to come to our aid. Me might say: we are the oak trees, these old and beloved oak trees. Do not cut them down and plant new… “better” saplings.Please help.This is our hour of decision. Please help.We are asking school families to create video messages from their kids, asking, demanding, that the ecology program they know, will be saved. Sing. Sing your joy and resolve. We can change things.
For more instructions, follow:
|“Don’t say the ecology program is being destroyed.” |
I don’t know what misconceptions people have about the program, but I know that if I am forced out, and have no way to impart, hand off, the complexity of the programs, the relationships and agreements between many parties, the bulk of the field ecology trips will end. No more Mighty Acorns, Lake trips, our river partnerships will dissolve. There are complicated reasons. For example, Mighty Acorns trips are funded by the Forest Preserves ($9,000 last year). This program is premised on students engaging in stewardship activities: brush cutting, seed collecting, weed pulling. These activities must be supervised by certified land managers. The Forest Preserve District does not have enough staff to provide supervision for all Mighty Acorns schools. But, because I am a certified steward, we are able to carry on. We also have a special status because of our history with Mighty Acorns (I was a founder, and wrote the introduction to the first manual 25 years ago). Without a steward, no trips. Similar for Lake trips.
So, if I am forced out, the school might be able to hire someone to teach ecology and “care” for the garden, but it will be unrecognizable from the current program. In that sense, the ecology program that I built over the past 25 years will be destroyed.
“Mistakes” made by WT
Recently, in defense of taking money donated by parents for the ecology program, it has been said that “mistakes were made” by well meaning parents on the WT board that overvalued my position, so that the pay level was inappropriate. First, let me say that I never once asked for a raise. I probably should have been more involved. But my interest was my work. I was very happy for WT to raise money, find grants, pay me and LET ME WORK. As I said yesterday, I am working up to my capacity, really over capacity. Things that distract me from my work make me unable to do the best job that I could. Even writing this, takes the place of other work I could be doing. But, this is important, I guess.
Liz Chandron wrote to tell me that:
The prior pay structure under WT was based on the assumption that one day you would retire, and a teacher would be hired to take over the program, and this was the future cost of that position.
Well that’s not a mistake. It makes some sense. We asked Mr R what the average teacher cost was and he said $105- $110,000 per year. The LSC cut ecology back to $56,000 with no benefits. At the same time they hired a new tech teacher at $105,000, at least $65,000 coming from WT, apparently money made available by cutting ecology. There was a mistake made. But, not by Waters Today.
Voice and CPS Miscellaneous employee
Last Fall the November Minutes of the LSC Budget Committee informs us under Ecology:
PR: Finally have a contact for procurement. Process would be six months for procurement. Instructed to create a description of what you want for the program and not what is already in place. CPOR (Chief Procurement Officer Requisition) best way to go – $75k threshold. If go bigger than that, would need to put program out for other bids (required by CPS).
That’s where I understood we were. After many months of effort, in August of 2021, I received a Vendor # and CPS verified insurance and background checks. I let Mr R know and he said that for now we would just keep doing things like usual, with WT cutting a monthly check. This was surprising because the LSC had been pushing and pushing for this Vendor # and now, all of a sudden, no rush, we’ll keep doing like before.
In early spring Mr. R called me and announced that he thought it would be easier to just hire me as a CPS employee, that I would get benefits, insurance coverage. Easier. And he said he had talked to Sandrine Schultz, head of CPS Sustainability, who was also, by the way, my sponsor for my Vendor Status. She is also a supporter of the ecology program, garden, and our composting program. So, I thought, “Well, maybe that would work”.
But, there are downsides to working as an “employee” for CPS. One was that there is no category that could represent what I actually do in my job. The one Mr. R presented to me sounded like a first year teacher’s aid. It in no way represents what I do.
Being a Board employee also restricts my ability to speak up and speak out when necessary on school, garden, and broader social and environmental issues. I am very willing to restart the Vendor process which would allow me to be compensated for the broad scope of my work.
In a particularly ugly and maybe even libelous turn, several FBers equated the need for me to be under CPS control, to the recent conviction of a former Waters teacher. BAD THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. But, the bad things happened in the school under CPS and Principal supervision, with a licensed and insured teacher. Bad things did not happen in the Garden.
As a Vendor I am registered at CPS, have insurance, and background checks. I, of course, work with the Principal and the teachers, parents and students every day. Please shut down this toxic bit of writing.
Finally, let me end with beautiful words of inspiration, passion, hope, and urgency from members of our community:
|Letters of support |
Dear Waters Community,
I am shocked and very saddened to hear about the challenges the ecology program is facing at our school. My daughter was fortunate enough to have been accepted to Waters through the lottery and we were so happy when we got the news she could go there. One of the core reasons we selected Waters was because of the ecology program as it offers such an enriching educational experience that is vital for young people to have. Mr. Leki not only teaches the students about the natural world around them but allows kids, parents, teachers and the local community to play an important role in supporting and sustaining this planet. And through his work we can all realize that this is no easy task but through years of dedication, perseverance and above all, team work, that we can all benefit our natural world together no matter how old you are.
The garden is a special space that inspires the students and community to pay attention to nature. It provides a gathering space for all people and so many different kinds of wildlife that need this area. Our world is facing a climate crisis and the city does not offer green play spaces that are easily accessible or utilized by many people. The Waters garden offers a place for everyone in the Waters community that they may not otherwise experience. It has taught and will continue to teach many generations how vital our appreciation of the natural world is and inspire these students to take control of the climate crisis and become a more thoughtful and respectful person to our planet and all of the living things in it. As a concerned and active member of the Waters community I respectfully ask how can we risk taking this away from the students? What is the motive behind this change and who does it benefit?
The La Pratt Family
Dear Members of the Waters Local School Counsel and Principal Rutkowski:
We are incredibly fortunate that the Waters Ecology Program is at our school. It is not justa class. The Waters Ecology Program and Garden makes our school unique across all the schools in Chicago—it makes it a special place to be, where children are uniquely supported and nourished.
My family and I moved to this neighborhood so our children could attend Waters Elementary School. We chose Waters and this community specifically because of the Ecology Program and the Waters’ Garden. We have learned that we are just one of many families who, over the years, have put down roots here to in order to be a part of the Ecology Program, Garden, and the school community that thrives as a result of these critical resources. We are in a time of crisis for our common home. The climate crisis has been called the “defining crisis of our time,” but it is one of many crises we are experiencing all at once.1 There is also the sixth mass extinction happening currently (the biodiversity crisis), a pollution crisis (ofair, land, and water—by chemicals, plastic, heavy metals, radioactivity, noise, and light), and deforestation and natural resource depletion (we are using our natural resources faster than they can replenish themselves).2 There is also a gun United States, including, as we know, here in Chicago.3 This is the context in which we must raise and educate our children.
1 United Nations, The Climate Crisis—A Race We Can Win (2022), https://www.un.org/en/un75/climate-crisis-race-we-canwin#:~:text=Climate%20change20is%20the%20defining,a20race%20we%20can%20win%E2%80%9D.
2 Robert H. Cowie, et al. The Sixth Mass Extinction: fact, fiction or speculation?, BIOLOGICAL REVIEWS, Vol. 97
pp. 640-663 (2022), available at, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/brv.12816; United Nations,
As Humanity’s Environment Footprint Becomes Increasingly Unsustainable, Global Leaders Recommit to
Joint Climate Action, at Opening of Stockholm Summit,
https://www.un.org/press/en/2022/envdev2046.doc.htm (“[H]uman demand on natural resources has
become unbearably heavy, with ecosystem degradation compromising the well-being of over 3 billion
people and a growing tide of pollution and waste costing some 9 million lives annually.”); Laura Parker, The
world’s plastic pollution crisis explained, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, (2019), available at
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution (“Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic
products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them.”).
3 Statement on Gun Violence Crisis from 60 National Organizations, June 6, 2022, available at,
There is no escaping that this is the world they have inherited, from those who came before and those who are still here now.
The Ecology Program and the Waters Garden are a refuge in this storm—for Waters students, Waters parents, and the community members who surround our school. Having such a refuge is important in and of itself. A rich body of research now formally demonstrates what many of us have long known—
spending time in nature has both physical and psychological benefits for human wellbeing.4 Green spaces near schools promote cognitive development and self-control behaviors in children. Exposure to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention control.5 The impacts of green space on the brain is profound, students briefly gazing out at a garden during an academic task results in them making fewer mistakes!6 Exposure to green space also reduces the risk of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and substance use disorder.7 Time in nature also increases children’s ability and likelihood to engage cooperatively with others.8 Research has also found that it is the more wild spaces that have the greatest ability to strongly reduce stress hormones like cortisol and α-amylase.9 We give our children an enormous gift each day by sending them to school in a building surrounded by a garden—not just any garden, but a garden they tend themselves, that the community members around them tend, and that their grown-ups and their friends’ and classmates’ grown-ups tend. A garden where soil is cultivated for food. A garden where Mr. Leki and community members carefully tend wild spaces to allow them their wildness (with all its amazing benefits!) and to support our precious native plants, which bring beauty and inspiration, home for incredible insects like butterflies, and build our soil for continued sustenance. The children have a place to explore, where there is wonder and awe, and also care and security.ations.aspx; Sarah Owermohle and Krista Mahr, America’s Gun Violence Crisis, POLITICO PULSE (2022),
available at, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/politico-pulse/2022/05/25/americas-gun-violence-crisis-
4 Kirsten Weir, Nurtured by Nature, AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY, Vol.51, No. 3 (2020), available at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature.
5 Kathryn E. Schertz and Marc G. Berman, Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits, CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE, Vol. 28, No. 5 (2019), available at, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721419854100.
6 Kate E. Lee et al., 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration, JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 42 (2015), pp. 182-189, available at
7 Kristine Engemann et al., Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood, PNAS, Vol. 116, No. 11 (2019), available at
8 Raelyne L.Dopko et al., The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation, JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 63, No. 1 (2019), available at,
9 Alan Ewert and Yun Chang, Levels of Nature and Stress Response, BEHAVIOR SCIENCES, 2018 May; Vol. 8 No.
5 (2018), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5981243/.
The Garden is an irreplaceable asset. But this letter is not about the garden alone. It is not only the exposure to natural spaces that is good for children’s wellbeing—it is the connection they feel to nature itself.10 Waters’ Ecology Program gives our children that connection. For over a decade, Mr. Leki has designed and executed a holistic program that teaches children to (1) observe and work to understand the living systems of which they are a part, and on
which they depend; (2) contribute meaningfully and with care to those systems; and (3) build sustaining community across differences. These are precisely the skills that our children most need to successfully navigate these challenging times and the ones to come—and to build healthier, safer, and more vibrant future for themselves and one another. I have witnessed first-hand Mr. Leki’s powerful work with the Ecology Program. This year I volunteered to help with the annual first grade play, which tells the legend of turtle and snake.
Through song and drama, first graders get the opportunity to teach the history of their school—how the Chicago River once flowed through the school grounds, the way people moved the river a few blocks away to be deeper and straighter, and the way a group of students stepped up and took action to build the garden they wanted to see and play in and explore at their very own school. It is a beautiful story, and the children are in awe to learn of their special place in their school’s rich history. First-graders then get to teach this history to the kindergarteners and pre-K students,who then too are able to feel connected to this history, their fellow students, and the garden that surrounds their very special school—including the amazing animals that live there. This experience gives the students a deep sense of belonging and connection—something Mr. Lekifosters throughout all his work with the Ecology Program.
Mr. Leki regularly invites parents to be a part of Ecology Program experiences. This means students get to see their grown-ups and their friends’ grown-ups in the school and in their classrooms. This helps foster community and a sense of care among the students that I value immensely as a Waters parent. It is this sense of community and care, of knowing one another, and feeling connected to one another that helps us keep our students safe. As a result of these volunteer opportunities, I have connected with other parents, and my son has connected with a wider array of students across multiple grades, building new friendships and acquaintances that make our community stronger. The Garden Stewardship Days provide ways for the larger community to be involved with the garden and further build connections between the school and the community that help build a safe and thriving community for our students.
10 John M. Zelenski and Elizabeth K. Nisbet, Happiness and Feeling Connected: The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness, ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 46, No. 1, 2014 (2012), available at
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0013916512451901 (finding that a feeling of connection to nature is
a significant predictor of happiness even after controlling for general connectedness). Cartwright, B.D.S., et
al., Nearby Nature ‘Buffers’ the Effect of Low Social Connectedness on Adult Subjective Wellbeing over the
Last 7 Days, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH AND PUBLIC HEALTH, Vol. 15, No. 6 (2018)
(“Results confirmed the importance of nature exposure for wellbeing in itself, and highlighted its potential
role in offering socially isolated individuals a way of satisfying the need to feel connected.”), available at
The value of Mr. Leki’s holistic approach in creating and implementing the Ecology Program cannot be overstated. The way the Program works up through the grades—starting the younger children at home in the garden at a place of learning and awe and completing manageable tasks, continuing out to explore the wider world, first the river and then the larger Forest Preserves, and then returning back home to contribute more richly to the garden—gives the children something to look forward to, something to aspire to, and a great sense of pride. It teaches them a remarkable sense of scale, allowing them to work and contribute over time and at varying levels and degrees as their own abilities and knowledge grows. This ability to see over the long-term, to have the firm understanding that small tasks repeated over time lead to enormous changes and incredible fruits, and to know in their bones that our world is alive and there for them, just as it is dependent on them, is what will make our children successful and great in this particular time.
Mr. Leki’s skill, dedication, and hard work is what brought the Waters Ecology Program about and made it consistently outstanding for over a decade. He designed something truly phenomenal and new and made it work. For this, he is also an outstanding role model for our children who will hopefully also learn to design and implement amazing new ways of doing things.
As a Waters parent, of a rising second grader and rising kindergartener, I fully support the Ecology Program. I ask that Mr. Leki’s work be sustained at the full level it deserves, with funding that recognizes (1) the executive role he has played, and continues to play, in designing and sustaining the Ecology Program, (2) the profound skill and knowledge he brings to the cultivation of native and agriculture plants in the Waters Garden, (3) his skills as an educator, and (4) the skill, coordination, time, and care he uses to build a strong and thriving school community.
Mr. Leki’s work with the Ecology Program has made Waters Elementary School a destination for many and has attracted valued parents and students to our school. He should be fully supported to ensure the Program continues to thrive.
Megan M. Hunter