Big Turn Out To Re-Fund Ecology Program

Pictures by Alicia Mayorca
In this message:
Report Back from Gathering to Save Ecology and Waters Garden
Response to inaccuracies on the Waters FaceBook Page
Bring Ecology Under Control!
There Are Rules that Must Be Followed
Nobody's Going to Destroy the Garden
Don't say the ecology program is being destroyed
Mistakes made by WT
Ugly Turn
(I'll only deal with the first three today, the rest tomorrow with more positive inspiring messages from the community)

Eighty plus people from Waters School Community came out to the Garden Saturday to express their concerns and upset about cuts to the ecology program and garden, and to dialogue with the Principal and LSC. Young and old, current, past and prospective families gave impassioned testimony and asked questions that were  not easy to answer. This type of  circle of concern was able to get clarity on a number of issues, which I will report on below. We didn’t get to do any garden work! The discussion lasted two and a half hours before it devolved into smaller group discussions, sharing wonderful food, gooseberry lemonade, pico de gallo, watermellon with mint, etc,  and being seranded by Waters parent musicians.
At the same time, a group of people “talked” on Facebook about the same subjects, but unfortunately got many of the facts wrong. I wish they would have joined the circle, in person. But here are some of the misconceptions that were repeated:

Bring Ecology under control!
That the ecology program needs to be brought under the control or supervision of the school, the Principal, CPS. The FBers are confused because they lack knowledge of the development of the ecology program and garden, and its  complex and rich history. The garden / ecology program were created by a decision made by the LSC way back in 1991 to “do something” about the “asphalt desert”. At that time our school community was very stressed economically and the school was decrepit and under-resourced. The school contracted with the Center for City Schools to adopt a teaching and learning philosophy that encouraged the school community to act, to collaborate, to engage students, and parents, and community members and environmental partners to take on the problems that beset us and change the world. Teaching within the classroom was being transformed, empowering students, and teachers to pursue their curiosity about this world, and render it in science, music, art, math, history, etc. This is how the garden and ecology program got its start. This is when we learned that the river once flowed through our grounds, and about the disappeared plants communities that once grew around our ancient oaks. The ecology program and garden grew from scratch, and took many years of effort, partnering, relationship building. But it has always been integral to the school’s mission, vision, and curriculum. The LSC and Principal were always its biggest allies and defenders. Our first Principal used to say to our teachers and the eco-gardening program, “You go ahead. You do the good staff. My job is to protect your work.”
As one former LSC Chair said so eloquently yesterday,  the LSC and the garden and ecology were like one thing, everybody participated, from food to work to song.
The ecology program, as it grew from just one grade level to a full k-9 program was included in every SIP (School Improvement Plan). So, in short, the program has been “under” the school’s supervision from day one until now. I often tell visitors that it is the school that gives our garden its heft, its awesome gravity: it is the realization of years after years of student work and commitment, the physical embodiment of our proud  history.
It is also true that neither former Principal actively managed the garden or program. The management of the garden was given to me, first as an associate of the Center for City Schools (National-Louis U) and later through grants and finally funded by WT. I worked extremely closely with both previous Principals, an effective sharing of responsibility based on trust.
During these years the garden and ecology program have been showered with awards from science and environmental, arts  and educational organizations. Ecology was considered an essential.
So, the assertion that the program must be brought under “control”, that its current status is unsustainable, is simple wrong and without merit. It could be that some members of the past Council have misinformation about the garden because they are not involved, don’t take part and witness the day to day reality. I urge them and welcome them to do so.

There are Rules that must be followed
Another often repeated phrase of the FBers is that we have to “play by the rules”. No doubt there are rules. But the garden wouldn’t exist if we always and only played by the rules. Another speaker yesterday, who worked on city-wide school gardens for Green Corps, told us that you can visit other school gardens, dozens, that are moribund, in disrepair, trashed and dead. They simply weren’t able to build the relationships, partnerships, trust and innovations that sustain a healthy school / community garden.

Nobody’s Going to “destroy the garden”
Another FB complaint is my use of the words Save the Garden, or the Garden and ecology program are being destroyed. Yesterday Principal Rutkowski assured us that the garden wouldn’t be touched, “No bulldozers are coming”. But there are other ways to destroy a garden. If we stopped watering the vegetable beds for just one week in summer, they would all die. The gardeners who perform this task, daily, week in week out, do it out of the goodness of their hearts and love for the garden and school. The attacks on the garden and defunding of the ecology erode the bonds that keep our community functioning. The watering has to be coordinated, hoses have to be repaired and replaced, plumbing springs leaks. 
If we stopped weeding for the summer the garden would be choked by weeds. Perhaps some people take the garden for granted because they don’t see, don’t recognize the huge, sustained amounts of energy that go into maintaining its health and productivity. Look at the new gardens in and around the north swale. These were a CPS design and build project. Probably 60% of the plants have already been killed. There is no love or care invested in these plantings and it has been recognized that the entire area is going to have to be re-done. Is this not a scandal? That project costed hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was under CPS control. Where is the outrage? Why is the LSC cutting funding for the parts of the school grounds that are rich, diverse and healthy, and say not a word about this gross mis-use of school funds.

Thank you! 
Waters Ecology

Save the Garden / Ecology Celebration Today!

Today, Saturday July 9, from 10-12, we will be gathering to

Save the Garden, and Save the Ecology Program. 

We will also be celebrating the garden and ecology program, our community, children and families, our plants and animals and Life in General.
I still don’t understand why the LSC decided to defund the ecology program by 30%. I really don’t know. But, I do know what is involved in doing the ecology program and garden, and all the moving parts and relationships that keep it going.  So, we are working on that. 

In the meantime we have been buoyed by the outpouring of support, which we will share with the LSC (and Principal). They will also be posted on our website There will be a meeting of the new LSC in two weeks and we hope very much to resolve the crisis, and move into the new school year with a full heart.

For tomorrow, we will start with doing some garden stewardship, weeding and wood chipping. While this is going on some of us will be preparing food, getting the grills going, making our own local gooseberry lemonade, and generally setting up to finish up the event with some music, songs and greetings.

Please Join Us!

Mr. Leki

Ecology w/o Mr. Leki

Hello Friends, 
If you were a corporate CEO, or a fast food worker, or a housecleaner, or professor, and were called in and told that your wages were being cut by 30%…. What would you think? It seems to me that this announcement is really an invitation for you to leave, to retire, to quit.
That is what is happening at Waters and with the ecology program and garden. The LSC likes them both, but wants me, Mr. Leki, out. Maybe they think I am too old. Or maybe they think I cost too much. Maybe they want someone new, that doesn’t know the history of the people who made the gardens. Maybe they want someone that is more afraid to speak out about issues in the garden, neighborhood and city. Someone that would be easier to control and deal with. Maybe they think they could buy someone to teach something called ecology, that, ironically, has no attachment to the school and community.  That is what the LSC is proposing: take a 30% defund or hit the road. 

I am working with a group of parents to present some counter-proposals to the LSC that could possibly resolve this crisis.
In the meantime,  

Join us on Saturday, July 9 for a
Garden /Ecology Celebration
10-12:00 Bring food and musical instruments.
We will work, and talk and eat and enjoy the day.

LSC has been invited to hear your voices
Mr. Leki

Here's what some of our community say:
To Whom It May Concern:
I write, in the highest possible terms, to retain Pete Leki as the head of ecology at Waters Elementary.   It is  doubtless that the program will likely not continue to thrive under hands other than Mr. Leki's.
Any student that has belted out a song on the bus to Sauganash, any parent that has chaperoned an ecology field trip, knows first-hand that Mr. Leki brings unparalleled expertise in education, community-building and passion for all things Nature.
I ask you to ensure that Mr. Leki will continue as the leader of ecology at Waters, so that future environments, whether inside the classroom or outside in the fields, can benefit from his unique knowledge and leadership.
George Cederquist,
Waters Elementary Parent.

Water's garden and ecology program is probably one of the most important and necessary components of the Lincoln Square community. Not only does it provide the opportunity for the students of Waters to learn about plants, gardening and natural stewardship but it also provides the community with a natural sanctuary that gives peace and tranquility. As the world is reminded over and over again by the real and immediate effects of Climate Change it seems vital to teach students the values of natural stewardship. It is also vital to have a space where animals and people and plants can congregate in harmony. I hope to continue to bring my young son to the garden so he can run around and discover all of the different plants and to see how food grows. Please reconsider defunding the ecology program.
Thank you
David Grant a community member

To Whom it May Concern -

I’m writing in support of full funding for the Waters ecology program. I bought a home about a block from Waters in 2019 and was first introduced to the garden then. I spent many summer nights taking walks among the plants, but it wasn’t until Summer 2021 that I became more involved. Since the pandemic struck, I had been a member of Lincoln Square’s mutual aid group. Last spring, we partnered with Mr. Leki and the Waters Garden to grow food for our neighbors who were facing food insecurity. Because of the efforts of the students, Mr. Leki, and others, we were able to make weekly deliveries of fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and more to some of our most vulnerable neighbors. In the process, members of the mutual aid group became garden volunteers—helping to prep beds for student use and to care for the veggies they had planted during the previous semester. As someone who plans to send my child to Waters in a few short years, I am acutely aware of how this kind of interconnectedness builds healthy, thriving communities and, in turn, improves the education of our children. When I purchased my home, I heard repeatedly from friends and neighbors who said things like “What a great location! You’re so lucky to be in the Waters district!” This kind of enthusiasm for a local school does not come without hard work—hard work like the kind Mr. Leki puts in every day for this school and these students. Please consider doing what you can to fully fund Waters’ unique and vital ecology program.

Taylor Fenderbosch 

A Principal Visits

Dear Waters Community,

The other morning I was at the garden helping one of the waterers wrangle the long garden hose. I saw a tall man walking and stopping on the sidewalk along the perimeter of the garden. He stopped, read the signs, looked in, craning his neck. Finally, I asked if he had any questions about the garden. He introduced himself as the new Principal of another nearby CPS school. He said that his school community wanted to start a garden and they told him: “You have to see Waters School Gardens”. So, that’s what he was doing. But he told me that he had no idea that our garden was so big, so rich, and so incredibly beautiful. I gave him a tour and told him some of the history of the garden: its small, heroic beginnings, its historic location on the bed of the old Chicago River, anchored by our ancient oaks, and the energy and creativity of our struggling community that converted 1.2 acres of asphalt to garden by hand!
One of the last things he said was something about how the mixture of garden boxes filled with flowers and vegetables, with the exuberant growth of native plants was just breathtaking.
That was an angel’s message at a time when the worth of the garden is being challenged by some in the school community.

Do you have a message that you would like to share, to help save the garden and ecology program? Here are excerpt from some messages I have received:

“I am so sorry to read this… My heart crumbles. Your ecology program was the thing that made us choose Waters and neighborhood all the way from Venezuela.” Alicia M. parent

“… we consider the school and gardens a community treasure, a wonder held in common. Our kids played on the playgrounds (several iterations). We shared in the raspberries, we hear the Scouts and neighbours at the fire pit singing songs, we play on the turf field on weekends, we marvel at the raised bed gardens and the variety of growing things, we are in awe at the centuries-old majestic trees in the South gardens.”  Eric C. neighbor and parent

 “For us the ecology program has been the stand-out experience at Waters, and not being able to fully participate in that was one of our great sadnesses during the 18 months of remote learning. However, the remote classes with Mr Leki were a highlight of remote learning, and proved to be the spark for many family outings, as Ewan and I walked the streets of the neighborhood trying to identify the tree species that he had learned about in class, or went to the Waters garden to draw plants and leaves. Upon return to in-person learning Ewan has loved being part of the Mighty Acorns and we are excited for him to continue with that next year. Growing up in the city with so many outdoor spaces covered in concrete or plastic, this early exposure to nature is vital for our kids. Childhood nature exposure is associated with increased self-esteem, and better quality of life as children, along with improved mental health in adulthood.” Jeremy A, parent and neighbor

“I’m writing because I was alarmed to hear that the Waters School Ecology Program budget is being cut by 30%. I’m a neighbor of Waters and a community development professional. Although I don’t have children, I moved to the neighborhood twelve years ago because of the school and the gardens. I work in many cities across the country, helping communities to develop sustainably and equitably. I’m often in touch with school districts and principals. I can tell you that the Waters School Ecology Program is a gem and would be the envy of many other cities. It provides the sort of experience that kids will identify later as their favorite part of school, one that supported them academically and personally. For the neighborhood, the gardens function as a community hub, a place that adds immeasurably to quality of life. The numbers of families who benefit from the gardens far exceed those who volunteer or whose kids attend Waters.” Ellen S. neighbor 

Please join us:
Save the Garden! Save Ecology! Celebrate the Garden Community
Saturday, July 9, 10:00 until Noon

Bring food, drinks and musical instruments, soccer balls, volley balls and frisbees.
If you are not able to join us, Please send us a message of support that we will share with the LSC and the Principal.

Thank You,
Mr. Leki

Garden Elves and Parent / Teachers

Dear Waters Friends, 

In order to cut funding for the ecology program, an analysis was done of my time allocation, based on my google calendar. It turned out that I only work 45% of a full time position! This came as a shock to me. Even tho I wasn’t consulted on the process, it seems to me I work all day, after school, weekends and summertime. It comes with the demands of the program that we have created over the past 25 years. 
In fact, when I corrected the time allocation chart for the LSC, it turns out I work 150% of a full time job. How is that possible?

Garden Elves! How do I keep the garden in good order and ready for use by our students? How do we maintain soil fertility, keep the beds in good order, weed and prune, compost waste, keep the tools in order, repair the wheelbarrows and hoses and everything else? How is it possible to keep the plants alive and thriving during the blazing summer so that students can partake of luscious veggies and fruit in the Fall? Garden Elves! Parents, neighbors, former LSC members, and teachers who volunteer, for free, every day, and gather en masse on our workdays to do their magic.  We have 400+ people on the garden email list, and probably 50 active volunteers. These people magnify my efforts, they vastly multiply my capacity. Our system is one that is a model for gardens around the city. They are paid only in friendship, appreciation, music and food.

Parent / Teachers
We had 48 off site field trips last year. How is this possible?? 250+ parents volunteered to be co-leaders, parent / teachers, exploring and learning with our children, allowing us to work in groups of 7-8, instead of 30. During pre-trip briefings, and extra workshops, parents are invited to learn about the pedagogy involved in our field outings, the science content of our trip, and how to respond to student work. Parents learn the ecology lessons, and with their groups, experience the surprises of wild nature. We write, we sing, we draw, we pursue our curiosity. On ecology field trips, we are building a learning community that continues after school, after Waters and throughout life. 

One teacher told me that her class’s garden experiences changed their whole day, inspired and relaxed her students, and filled them with joy and happiness. A sixth grade teacher, walking with her class to River Park to net benthic organisms and conduct chemical tests, and sketch wild nature, told me “This is what I signed up for when I decided to be a teacher. Not to drill students for tests.”

Our ecology program and garden are unique and powerful places for students to engage Life. Please help us to restore  funding and to keep the programs intact and protected.
Please join us on Saturday, July 9 from 10:00 to 12:00 to let the LSC know what you think. 

Mr Leki

Ecology Program In Jeopardy

As of today, the Ecology Program  at Waters is going to be defunded by 30%. Some people in the LSC and school community have suggested that the garden is underutilized, a waste of space, and that what happens in the garden is a mystery. They say the ecology program is too expensive.

So we want to invite the LSC and our entire community to a Save the Garden, Save Ecology,  Celebrate the Garden Community, on Saturday, July 9, 2022 from 10 until noon. 

Come and share your experiences with the LSC and our Principal. Tell them what the garden has meant for you and your family. 

The garden didn’t appear spontaneously, and is not maintained by luck. Decades of work by generations of Waters students and families have created one of the largest, most beautiful, and ecologically important gardens in the city. The garden needs funding and protection.

The ecology program is unique to the entire city. It doesn’t fit into any of the boxes created by the system. It needs to be treasured and defended.

Join us on July 9 to share your stories, and bring some food to share. We will have a grill going to make quesadillas and hot dogs. We will be making fresh gooseberry lemonade. We will have a homemade pico de gallo contest. The winner gets a frozen bag of garden pumpkin! 

Bring your musical instruments and songs. Help us to save the garden and the ecology program. 
If you cannot be there, but wish to support this effort to save the ecology program, please send us a written letter of support. We will compile them and give them to the LSC and Principal.

Mr. Leki

Raspberry patch threatened

Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Unless persuaded otherwise, contractors will come to Waters tomorrow to tear out the raspberries that grow along the west side of the (old) Annex. I don’t know why they are doing this, or who ordered it. I have emailed the Principal but received no response. I bumped into the contractors by accident.
This patch of sweetness was planted by students 10+ years ago, and each year since then kids, families, staff, and visitors have stopped short and paused to enjoy fresh ripe berries. Below the berries grows chamomile, garlic, arugula, sedum (from seeds that dropped off the green roof) New England Asters, milkweed, and more. It has been trellised, weeded, pruned, and fertilized by our school community. It is a well-tended and much loved use of otherwise forgotten space. It is watered using the 500 gallon cistern nearby.
Why is this happening? It is from these small acts: the act of creating and tending a garden, or the act of abruptly destroying it. These are the acts that create our future, our world. 
They say they will pour cement.
I will be there at 8:00 tomorrow morning to ask them to stop. Please join me if you can.
Mr. Leki

Piping Plovers, Screech Owls, and Phenology

Dear Friends, The earth is reborn, fresh and new!In our garden, a parade of rare and beautiful native flowers are revealing themselves, day by day. I have asked our students to seek them out, to sketch them and record the date of bloom. This is a branch of ecology called Phenology, the timing of biological events. One way to take the pulse of Nature. Have a look! Slides 2-12 are blooming or have already bloomed in our garden.

Chalk one up for the Plovers! Last week the Chicago Park District acceded to the urgent requests of birders, restorationists and our middle school students and teachers, to add permanent protection to the part of the Montrose Dune Natural Area that has been the nesting area for the endangered Piping Plovers! The Graff family celebrated by doing a trash pick up at Montrose Point! Well done!

Abbie, Sylvie, and Grandmother Graff.jpg


Elizabeth K and students Leighton and Corinne alerted me to the presence of a clutch of Screech owls in our neighborhood! If we open our eyes, who

Baby Screech Owl.jpg

 knows what we will see. What a gift. Thank You!
Please visit, for news, ecology lesson resources K-8, films and photos,
Mr. Leki

81 People have joined the one day Solidarity Hunger Strike

Dear Friends, 

We are four hours in to our one day solidarity hunger strike with our friends from the 10th Ward who are fighting for a clean and healthy neighborhood.
Below is a link to our interview with Yesenia Chavez, one of the Hunger Strikers trying to Stop General Iron.

The first part, conducted by Pete Leki is directed to Waters School 8th graders who are learning about environmental justice.

The second half, conducted by Jules Peterson-Green, is directed to the Ward 47 Green Council.

Total running time is 48 minutes.

How can you help? Share and/or donate to this fundraiser going directly to the hunger strikers.

You can also sign this petition and forward it to you friends and networks.