Ecology news

Invitation to Garden night Wed Aug 3rd, 5-Sunset

Dear Gardeners and wider community,

Please join me in the garden tomorrow, Wednesday, from 5 until whenever, for stewardship, flowers tours, harvest, friendship and hope. 

Before that are two links.  One is a slide show of a portion of the diverse plants that are thriving in our native gardens. We will see some of them on our walk-around tomorrow.

The other is an impassioned beautiful short film by photographer, and former Waters School parent Alan Shorthall.

Below that is a portion of a message sent to our Alderman Matt Martin today. Please the main page of our website if you need background about what happened this month.

Gratitude to all.

Beautiful video about the Ecology program by Alan Shortall (thank you, Alan!)


Cooling off period for the garden.

Dear Ald Martin,

Thank you for your agreement to attempt to reopen negotiations.

This was written by Pete with the input of supporters in the community.

History shows that Waters Garden needs independent stewardship. It has always had that.  This arrangement needs to continue to protect it.  Pete will be seeking an agreement for stewardship and protection of the garden.

But first, most urgently, Pete and the garden community ask you please to reach out urgently to the principal to confirm that there will be no new construction of any size including fencing in the garden this year.

The reasoning behind this request is this: The gardeners suspect the community garden will be ripped out or that some new project will turn the garden into a construction site, betraying their trust in the safety of the garden they create and tend. The community remembers the last two times cps broke promises, lied to us, destroyed trees dedicated to students who had died, etc. We have film of it.  People were crying in the garden today with worry and stress. The community needs relief.  It’s sacred space to them. It’s where they raised their kids, tending the garden together… In our experience any crew in the garden needs close supervision or they destroy what was carefully built and betray the trust of volunteers.

People are on pins and needles watching the garden, expecting the principal to encroach on it with new “improvements” that destroy what was built by generations before, by students and parents who still live nearby.  There are rare plants there. In the future, after the cooling off period, to avoid destruction and to avoid upsetting and angering the volunteers, crews should never be sent in without supervision from Pete or one of the other trusted, skilled gardeners, who work in conjunction with Pete. While people unfamiliar with Waters Garden may not understand, the history is that there have been countless problems over the years. For example, a crew trying to dig a 5 foot trench unannounced or test drilling for a new building where people turned out in protest on a moment’s notice. There needs to be a cooling off period before anything happens so things can calm down.  We are worried both about the actual damage to the garden and about the gardeners themselves. There are so many stressors on people. They need to know the garden is safe.

Thank you,

Pete Leki (with input from community members)


Saturday..Garden Morning-9am to noon, July 30 2022

Dear Gardeners and Ecology Volunteers,

Tomorrow will be the last workday for which I will be a paid staff member at Waters. After that I will be a volunteer, just like you. But, just like you, I am dedicated to the continuation of this decades-long, generational restoration of a healthy, diverse and beautiful oak savanna ecosystem. 

The community, (newcomers welcome) will join together, tomorrow, to work, to learn, and after, to share food and to share music. 

We will gather up our joy and energy, and hear new ideas and initiatives being planned to take us to a new and better place. We need you, your family, your ideas and hope, your fun and energy. Bring it.

I keep running into people in the garden and neighborhood who ask “How are you doing?”, and didn’t know that the ecology program and my job no longer exist. It’s all been eliminated and replaced with something else and that the garden’s future is uncertain. Why did this happen? What can people do about it? Who will protect the garden from the continual onslaught of threats? Many people have raised their voice! Their voices are getting louder as the truth comes out. So, spread the word! Please go to to sign the petition (read the comments first and maybe leave your own when you sign too! and hear the latest news and ideas from the community in coming days.

Hope comes from the place of a heartache.

So, please, come ready to help us supervise kids, prep fire and food, play music during the whole morning(!), weed, chip. tie, water, and join the tour to learn how to ID some of our native plants. 

And please share these links widely on social media. Some Waters families aren’t getting the news.

of all times, Now? Surveyors in the Garden!

Dear Gardeners, 
Surveyor’s are at the school! I stopped and talked to them and asked if they were surveying for the polling place access project (the one responsible for the raspberry scare). They said, “No. We’re here to survey the whole property. They want us to pinpoint the location of the big oaks, everything.”
Please take photos of the surveyors and post to social media. This is similar to the last time surveyors were in the garden to drill boreholes for the footprint for a new Annex. 
One would think that I, as Director of Ecology Programs (still), would have been notified. 
But I wasn’t, and in the current atmosphere of threats to ecology and the garden, I should have been made aware.
It just notches up the anxiety level for the whole community.
I asked them not to step on plants. They said they would be careful.
Just a couple months ago I encountered two workers gathered around the bur oak by the tool shed, and they explained they had been asked to give an estimate for tree removal. No one had notified me.  I went to the Principal and filled him in on the history of these oaks, and organized environmental organizations to help us stop the destruction of this 300 year old tree.  When the BOE person came to do his personal observations, he agreed with the professionals that the tree was sound, healthy, biologically significant, and culturally invaluable, and should be cared for, protected, and presented to the community as a treasure. I only engaged with this delegation by luck. I was not told of their visit by the Principal. I was being excluded.
We have to be vigilant. Think Meigs Field. We have to be ready to come out and speak up.

If anyone has a list of media contacts that they could send to me, please do. 
and here are links to two articles covering what’s happened.

Green fight at North Side school

Lincoln Square Parents Furious Over Ousting Of Longtime Waters Ecology Director

The LSC has been made aware that I had accepted the terms before the last LSC mtg by one of their board members who was present for negotiations. 

Much Love and appreciation to you Garden Guardians,
Pete Leki

anonymous comment from longtime friend D. R.

(taking a cue from the LSC anonymous letters and the retribution for these emails)

“Just read the latest. I did feel like, in the LSC meeting, one thing that stuck out was that Mr. R was setting the narrative to expand his control over what is currently community plots. He gave the #s — I forgot what they were — but it would be very easy for him to couch it as “expanding” the program for students by upping the percent of their plots v. community members. He also pointed out there’s not enough recess space for the kids, setting the scene for less garden. This drives the explanation more into him just wanting control of the property, in my opinion. And it definitely shows he has been focused on a goal he is not revealing this whole time. “

July 27 2022 Garden Night

Wednesday Garden Night tonight

New school families are especially invited to visit the garden and see 
what garden night is like.  Many school families participate every week, though 
some are on vacation now.  

We’ll have the usual task list. There are many pleasant gardening opportunities for parents and children to do together. 

We’ll have a PlantID walk especially to learn the flowers in bloom in this time of the summer.

And musicians are invited to serenade us while we garden or at the end! I hope they do!
More thoughts from Mr. Leki:

The days are passing and each passing day makes it less likely that the ecology program will return to Waters as we all have known it.
I am still spending hours each day in the garden, with the help of neighbors and parents, caring for the vegetable beds and native plants. Our Saturday work mornings have been warm and wonderful, with a trace of sadness always nearby. I would like to recommence Wednesday evening workdays to engage more of our community and to get the garden in tip top shape.  I will take time during each workday to lead plant ID tours with some of our other native plant experts. Many of our plants are very beautiful and many are very rare. It is good to get to know them, their curious ways, and needs. The mobile phone plantID apps are great for beginners, but most seem to enjoy learning our local Chicago native flowers with people and books.  The garden community includes quite a few native plant experts (environmental science and biology professors, a former native landscaping crew training and management leader, and quite a few others with decades of experience.)  We’ve been talking about how to tend the garden in the short term, with such uncertainty.  They understand how rare and special Waters garden is and can share that knowledge with you, so more people understand why we protect it and how it’s important to the ecology program at Waters.  We hope more people will want to learn how to care for this incredible garden.  We will also try to have more music during the workdays, as we have in the past, to lift our spirits and keep us strong. 

People have asked how they can help, what they can do.  

Please  keep reading the news as updates come. Other news articles are likely soon. 

Please spread this link so that people can get this newsletter or share our newsletters on social media and block clubs. 

I want to let people have time to learn what happened and have time to sort out the truth and notice where statements were misleading or worse, notice what incorrect assumptions have been made and reflect.  Perhaps some will be unmoved by the new information, but they will need to think heavily about their reasons because others will question them deeply. Lets let them have a little time. The news is still coming out. 

Stay tuned.  Meanwhile, see you in the garden. There’s lots of work to do! 
New neighbors can join this email list here.  
Please share the link with them and in places where they will find it. 

Hope and Loss

Dear Friends, 
Thanks for the great work done Saturday 16 and all week.
Good News! I will be meeting with the Principal tomorrow, Monday 18 to try to resolve the impasse for the ecology and gardening program. Stay tuned.
And, we are missing two wheelbarrows: the big double wheel one, and a smaller red one. I assume this has something to do with the rowdy gathering of youth on the sports field on Saturday night. Please keep an eye open in the neighborhood in case the barrows turn up.
Be well, stay strong, 
Mr. Leki

Gardening Saturday Morning 10-12 Saturday, July 16th

It’s been quite a week. We’ve shared a petition and need to get back to gardening.

10-12 Saturday, July 16th, please join us for the usual garden tasks and to share music and food at the end.

While surely, there will be some discussion about current ecology program status, lets try to save discussion for a short Q&A around 11.. Its been an exhausting week. Last week over 70 people gathered and were so worried about the garden and ecology classes, they barely got any gardening done! The garden needs us! Lets not waste another garden day worrying. Instead, enjoy the garden, and be good and kind to one another. and please come at the beginning if you can.

more news soon. Hold Fast! The universe is large and many things are possible.

Raise your voice for Waters Ecology

July 15, 2022 Ecology director, Mr. Leki, and Waters parents ask for your voice of support,

Petition Link

It’s urgent. Thank you.  Please leave “display my name publicly” if you feel ok about that. it helps. I know some waters parents and staff want to remain anonymous and that’s fine, but it doesn’t help nearly as much and things are in the balance.

Save the Community that Built the Garden and the Ecology Program

Dear Friends, 
The attack on Waters Garden and Ecology are not about Mr. Leki, it is an attack on a locally grown, generations-long effort to heal our world and build our community.
The relentless demand to follow the rules is what has given us barren asphalt school grounds, traffic choked streets, bad air, filthy rivers, and disaster.  And always, just behind the demand to conform, is the quiet letting of contracts, the influence of powerful entities that take our wealth and use it to make it theirs. 
Please speak up to Save the Ecology Program and Save the Garden.

This Is What We Will Lose
Mr. Leki

Letters of Support

Dear Waters school,  my name is Vladimir Von Klan and I was a student of Pete Leki at Waters. The program is an amazing way for young kids to learn about nature and the nature around us. Kids these days seem bound by technology and things that aren’t healthy for them. Learning about nature will help these kids. By destroying the garden and the program itself won’t be the smartest idea at all. You will be stripping these student from learning amazing things about our world. It sickens me that the human race takes away the beautiful things in nature to put in something man made. Let these students learn about nature. Let nature thrive. I beg of the school board and whom ever is in charge to not make this decision. I work for the California conservation corps and I fight to keep nature thriving. The things I have learned from Pete’s program has lead me to my work that I do now.

Vladimir Von Klan

Well heck. This information is equally unsettling and untrue. 
I can’t assume the hours you spend “doing your job,” but what I know is that your regular school hours and irregular gardening maintenance schedule makes you a trusting and consistently present grown up acting as a mentor and supervisor in the misc hours where kids of all ages are most vulnerable. Not to mention the commitment you show to the Waters improvement project, the children it is intended to nurture and the community at large. 

I also know that the knowledge and camaraderie you facilitate on your trips to sauganash is LITERALLY a cathartic camp-like experience. One that many families can’t begin to afford, and one that enhances the learning environment, through all areas of study. You take privilege out of the equation of being a steward to nature, something I have never seen before. I simple detail critical for the natural and emotional resurgence in communities everywhere. 

I have no idea of a constructive way to support your efforts (money is insanely tight these days). But if there is any action I can take to assist in bringing light to this misstep, please do let me know. 
Allison Pelsoci

I have known Mr. Leki since long before we even had children.  There is no doubt that he has poured his entire heart and soul into the work that he does.  He cares deeply about his work and your children.  If you don’t believe this you don’t know him.  His efforts, vision, and leadership have defined Waters Elementary.  I have said this for many years.  His work, with many others, has significantly changed the reputation of Waters for the better. 

 Perhaps we are taking a short term view to a long term issue.  Investing in Mr. Leki and his ecology program focuses our children to consider broad issues.  We need broad thinkers in our future and we need to start children down this path early.  This is not just an ecology issue.  Previous generations failed at this and we have an obligation to do better.  A textbook version of ecology will fail to achieve this broad view.

 It’s a matter of trust; I trust Mr. Leki to run the ecology program as he sees fit. I trust him to allocate his time as appropriate. I trust him to educate our children for the future.  I trust that we are spending our money wisely with Mr. Leki.  You simply cannot replace the impact that Mr. Leki has had today and long into the future.  Trust him and fund him.

 Robert Zacks

Re-Fund and Restore

Dear Waters Community, 

At the end of the school year I received a double whammy from the school.
First, I was told that I would receive a 30% wage cut. I was told that this was because not enough money was raised. Some days later I learned that the Principal had created a pie chart of my activities and shared it with the LSC. This showed that I only work 45% of a full time job, and this was the rationale for cutting my salary.
Shortly after, I was sent my proposed job description as a CPS Miscellaneous Employee.
I have attached a link to this job description below.
I sent back the job description for Director of Ecology Programs that I created with the last administration.
Besides the hurt and insult, I wonder which job you would like me to do?
I got word that on the 15th of July I will receive my last paycheck from Waters Today.
Nothing else is in place.
Below the links is an impassioned demand that the school and LSC Refund Ecology, Restore my role as Director, and try to heal the damage that has been done.

Misc Employee job description

Director of Ecology Job Description 2018

Letters of support.

Dear Waters Local School Council (LSC),

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter in support of reinstating the compensation of Pete Leki. My name is Andrea Dennis. I am a resident of the community (Maplewood and Sunnyside). I moved to this school district for my future children to attend Waters because of the ecology program. I am a volunteer in the garden. I have also partnered with Waters during my time as the Director of Environmental Education at Friends of the Parks and most recently as an After School Matters instructor utilizing the garden as a classroom space. I attended the community meeting on July 9, 2022 to learn more about the defunding of the ecology program. I urge you to re-examine this decision for the following reasons:

  • INACCURATE CODIFIED ROLE & RESPONSIBILITIES: Mr. Leki’s role has been erroneously categorized. The comparison of his role being a coach or after school program is instructor, grossly misrepresents his role, experience and responsibilities at the school. His responsibilities necessitate time behind the scenes to prep for his instructional time. This is not assessed AT ALL in the current coding of his role. The work he does (for example to prep potatoes for the kindergartners) takes months of preparation and is unaccounted for. His ability to take students to the Forest Preserves because he is registered and trained with that institution, which couldn’t happen with anyone else, is unaccounted for. The expert knowledge he has and level of experience is unaccounted for. The longstanding connections he has with community groups that helps students connect with real world issues is unaccounted for.  The budget and coding of his role needs to be reassessed. 
  • DEFUNDED PROGRAM THROUGH REDIRECTED NONPROFIT FUNDS: Waters Today was created to fund the ecology program, now that nonprofit nor the donors of that nonprofit (which I am counted amongst), have agency to fund the ecology program. His compensation is no longer able to be subsidized by that nonprofit (or others like it since those decisions would go through the school).
  • DIVISIVE NARRATIVES: The narratives that it was a mistake he received the salary he did; that he should be defunded because other schools don’t have a role like this; or that some teachers are upset plays into a race to the bottom mentality. In the current climate change and mental health catastrophes our youth are facing, we absolutely owe it to the next generation to invest in programs and stewards of the land and community. What example do we show when we defund a program like this or position? Who wins?  This decision is demoralizing and divisive and the ones hurting are our children. 
  • INTANGIBLES OF THE HIS ROLE & THE ECOLOGY PROGRAM: There are numerous studies around what keeps a community safe, and all hands point back to community engagement. The garden keeps the school safe. How can we count the number of prevented crimes or prevented mental health breakdowns because of the garden? This has to be taken into consideration or the value of the program is grossly undervalued.
  • CLOAK OF SECRECY AROUND THIS DECISION: If the community knew that there was any sort of possibility that this role and program would be defunded by 30% there would have been an outpouring of civic engagement to join LSC and Waters Today.

I’m disappointed that in a moment like this when we are facing so many threats to the safety of our children, we have to spend energy in fighting to have this role and program NOT be defunded. But I also have hope. I have hope in all of you that this outcry will help you call forth the value and importance of this program. That you will fight with every fibre that you have to think creatively to act on behalf of our youth and reinstate this funding.

Thank you for your support of refunding Mr. Leki’s role and showing the value of this program. 

Andrea Dennis

If you love the Garden and Ecology Program…Speak Up, Now.

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
Ugly Turn 

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.

Ugly Turn
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),,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,; United Nations,
As Humanity’s Environment Footprint Becomes Increasingly Unsustainable, Global Leaders Recommit to
Joint Climate Action, at Opening of Stockholm Summit, (“[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 (“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,
4 Kirsten Weir, Nurtured by Nature, AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY, Vol.51, No. 3 (2020), available at
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,
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

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 (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
(“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
Waters Parent