Community News Update


1. Principal Evaluation survey

2. Waters Garden stewardship days begin today, Wednesday March 29, 5:30 pm

3. Recent Waters Ecology education and activities

1. Click here to take the annual Principal Evaluation Survey for Families & Community by Friday, March 31st. The Waters School Local School Council will use your input to inform Principal Rutkowski’s formal performance evaluation. This CPS mandated process supports the principal in identifying professional growth priorities to improve his leadership of our school, ultimately benefiting experience and outcomes for students, staff, families and broader school community. Your survey results are anonymous.

2. Spring Garden Stewardship begins today, Wed, March 29, at 5:30 with the first garden night of the season. We will be pruning, and teaching how to prune fruiting shrubs, like gooseberry, currants, raspberries and grapes. Pruners provided. If anyone would like to start a fire in the fire circle and bring campfire food to cook and help with that work and cleanup, they are welcome to do so.

3. Recent Ecology education and activities Although the old ecology program is no more for Waters School since the current Principal and certain members of the LSC decided to re, the ecology community continues to be active and would like to share some news. Recently Mr. Leki’s been leading/co-leading activities at the Riverbank, Sauganash, the “Nature at the Lake”, and more. here’s a few reports back and a few photos…

On Sunday, March 5, more than 50 people, including some Waters families, showed up for a stewardship day at Sauganash Prairie Grove. We cut brush and burned it in big brush piles. We shared food and friendship.  Larry Hodak and Pete Leki, the longtime stewards of the rare protected ecosystem at Sauganash, were able to share some of the natural and social history of the site. One Waters student, who happened to discover a deer skeleton,  asked his dad: “When can we do this again?”  (info on that below photos)

Although Saugnash has been a Waters School Mighty Acorns site since 1993, Waters’ formal relationship with Mighty Acorns ended last fall.

Families from Waters also attended a prescription burn training on March 14, to gain a better understanding of the reason for and methods for conducting prescribed ecological fires. 

Mr. Leki was able to introduce students from another school to the Montrose Dune ecosystem and Lake Michigan last week. One group was lucky enough to come upon a roosting barred owl. The trip included a reading of the book, “The Fight Between Quiet and Noise” and a number of songs. (See fotos below).

Last weekend Riverbank Neighbors, including Waters School families, took part in the celebration of the Spring Equinox and the prescribed burning of sections of the riverbank.  Successful and beautiful burn. Ready for Spring.

On Friday, students from Lane Tech, including former Waters students, visited Sauganash / LaBagh to cut brush and burned it in a big brushpile . Other teams hauled logs to line pathways, while others constructed fencing to protect newly planted shrubs. 

There’s more news to share, but that’s enough for now. Please write back with encouraging notes! We appreciate hearing from you. These emails are put together by several community members including Pete Leki.

Ecological and Community Restoration remain essential to saving our Planet

Future Sauganash info:

We will post another work day within a couple weeks. In the meantime,  LaBagh / Sauganash stewards sent out this invitation:

Our next volunteer workdays are Sunday, April 2 and Saturday, April 15, from 10 am – 1 pm. Our exact meetup locations are TBD but we think we’ll be at Grove 3 on April 2 – look for the yellow “volunteer” signs in the parking lot.

Please let us know if you can join us by filling out this form, if you haven’t already: Your RSVP will help us plan and make the most out of our workday. Regrets are not necessary. Feel free to pass along this email along to others who might be interested in joining.

Saturday Morning Celebrate the End of Winter

Dear community, you are invited to 2 campfire celebrations of the end of Winter!

Saturday, March 18th 10-12 at the garden, there will be a warm campfire with hot chocolate and a few songs shared.  Water School families and neighbors are invited to join and learn about spring care that’s needed to keep the garden raspberries, currants, and other berries growing and plentiful…

…and Sunday, March 19, Riverbank Neighbors will celebrate the Spring Equinox with a campfire at the riverbank (at Berteau) from 4-sunset after a riverbank workday from noon till 2.

Check back for updates due to weather.

A Garden and A Community Needs Constant Care

Caring for the land, like caring for your home and neighborhood, is a never-ending, on-going task. We do it because we love these places. So it is with a farm… so it is with Waters Garden. In each season, and through the winter, the garden needs care-givers monitoring, fixing, guiding and caring. 

Soon spring will arrive, and our 25 year ritual of burning the native garden will, with good conditions and luck, take place, but, for the first time since the garden was re-created in 1993, the  burn is being contracted out to a private company with no links or history in the neighborhood. The dozens of people that have been trained, certified and had experience in this work have been set aside. Instead, money that was fund-raised for the school will be paid to a private corporation.  We hope that the company will honor the knowledge and experience of the Waters Garden Stewards and consult closely to conduct a safe and successful burn. Do no harm!

But other tasks loom large.

Last fall we managed to shortstop 10 bales of straw from being sent to the landfill, and instead dry-stored it for use as mulch. Fencing has been broken and knocked down. It needs to be reinstalled. The greenhouse was vandalized (and repaired). Wheel barrows were repaired. (Editor’s note: who do you think did this work?)

In late winter the fruiting shrubs need to be pruned: black and red currants, gooseberries, grapes and raspberries. This pruning requires knowledge and experience. Improper pruning can cause zero production of fruit. This is work that the gardeners have been trained for and a task we have performed for many, many years. This is part of our community culture, built by the existing longtime creators and stewards of Waters Garden. Pruning is a skill that must be taught and supervised. It’s easy to get it wrong. And when it goes well, a bountiful harvest of berries is available for Waters students, as has been for many many years.

Trellises need to be repaired. Raised beds need tending.  The cold frames will need to be monitored and tended to. Will they produce a spring crop of veggies? Do they need repair??

Hope is the promise of spring, when the “sap” begins to flow in tree and human alike. The endless promise of a good year.

Invitation to Sauganash

Dear Friends, 

Waters Ecology, Riverbank Neighbors, and the North Branch Restoration Project,  would like to invite you to:

a winter restoration workday at Sauganash Prairie Grove  (the traditional site for Waters School Mighty Acorns)

Sunday, March 5, 2023, 10-1:00 for community volunteers including families of Waters Students who missed out on the Waters Ecology program with Mr. Leki this past fall.

With good luck we will have beautiful wintery weather. Afterwards, we’ll share some food around a campfire. All are welcomed to participate, and to learn from and with the longtime experienced and skilled restoration stewards supervising the event. Children need to be accompanied by their responsible adults. 

This nature stewardship opportunity is co-led by Pete Leki and Larry Hodak and co-hosted by other leaders from Riverbank Neighbors and the North Branch Restoration Project.

Please let us know if you can join us by filling out this form for the Sauganash/LaBagh Woods Volunteer Workday. Please ignore the other date listed and the part about certifications, which doesn’t apply.

Your RSVP will help us plan and make the most out of our workday. Regrets are not necessary. Feel free to pass along this email along to others who might be interested in joining. 

Generations of Waters ecology students and families have participated in the stewardship of the rare and precious ecosystem of Sauganash and LaBagh with the Waters Garden and Riverbank Neighbor community and co-leaders. Expertise and skills exist in our community. Many children have been raised by parents who make stewardship of the native ecosystem part of their family and community culture. It’s a joy. We invite you to join us. Gratitude to all who’ve kept their determination to protect our special havens for rare Illinois native flowers and birds, who’ve protected the land and the stewards of the land. We hope to see you at this special stewardship event. Spring is around the corner!

Of Joe-Pye and Dunning-Kruger

When I first started to volunteer at the Waters garden I was afraid of weeding. To be honest, I still am. What if I pull the wrong plant? Think that I’m helping only to discover that I pulled the rarest, most valuable plant in the garden. So I made sure that I learned the species to pull one by one. First creeping charlie, an invasive species that is pretty easy to recognize, if not so easy to eradicate. Then came Joe-Pye, I carried a specimen with me as I worked to compare with what I was about to pull, so that I could be sure that I pulled the right thing. Joe-Pye weed is pretty easy to recognize too, so I quickly became confident. Perhaps too confident; at garden night, when other tasks ran out, I could look for the plants on my weed list and pull them, safe in the knowledge that these were plants that should be removed. I taught others how to recognize them so they could pull them with me.

Then I discovered that Joe-Pye is a native plant. I questioned, why remove a native? Well, it gets tall, crowds out other plants. Pulling it helps the more ‘valuable’ plants by giving them more space and light. This satisfied me for a bit, but as I watched the work in the garden it began to dawn on me that there was more to it. The question was not so much what to pull, but where and when to pull it.

Native ecosystems evolved over epochs that are difficult to comprehend. Different species competing for the same resources gradually establish an equilibrium, some even come to rely on one another. Different plants flower at different times in the year to reduce competition for the pollinator insects; species like the oak trees have mast years, where all the trees synchronously produce so many acorns that the animals that eat them are overwhelmed and can’t consume them all. When humans first arrived in the Chicago region, they disturbed this equilibrium. Some species were driven to extinction, but over time a new equilibrium emerged. The humans, plants and animals of this area lived in a balance with one another.

Then came the modern world. Natural areas were suddenly considered to be ‘unimproved land’ just waiting to be torn up and exploited. The delicate equilibriums built over thousands of years were destroyed. Some species seized their moment. Tall goldenrod and others sprung up wherever disturbed land was left unmanaged. But others became rare and precious.

When we try to restore native ecosystems we are trying to achieve in a few years something that would only occur naturally over thousands. The plants and animals have not evolved to deal with this kind of environment, thousands of years of battles are re-played in our gardens. For a restoration to be successful it needs a watchful eye. Someone to say, “the rosin weed are taking over that section of the garden, let’s thin them out before they go to seed”. Someone who understands how to guide the plants towards that equilibrium in this new environment. 

I don’t know how to do this. Maybe one day I will; but a couple of years ago I didn’t even know that I didn’t know this. This is the Dunning–Kruger effect. People with limited knowledge of a subject tend to overestimate their competence; it is only as you learn more that you learn how much there is still to know. Knowing that this can happen is key to seeking knowledge with humility and applying that knowledge with precision. It is the value that experts bring to the table; not just because they can speak with the authority of years of learning, but because they can foster this humility, having stumbled on the same pitfalls themselves.

Joe-Pye is a beautiful plant. I know now that it has an important place in the garden, that we should not indiscriminately pull every example we see. Sometimes it grows to excess, gets too tall, crowds out other plants. Then an experienced eye will see where and when it needs to be removed. For me, I will be happy when I can tell the two Joe-Pye species that grow in the garden apart.

Jeremy Atherton, Waters Parent

Read all about it…

Today’s newsletter topics:

1 Waters Ecology, Pete Leki, and the school in the news…

2 LSC meeting mark your calendar Tues, Sept 20. Stand up! (see below)

3 Send us your questions, your comments, your brainstorms, and your letters.

4 Who’s Managing this Garden? Cucumbers and tomato plants ripped out!

5 Saturday, Sept 17 9-12 Garden Stewardship morning.

6 Gardeners invited to join Riverbank Neighbors Sunday

7 Sunday North Center Sustainability Market



  1. Click on the image to link to the article. See below for essential quotes.

“Leki himself used to be a Waters parent and is now a grandparent to a student there. Three decades ago, while heading the Waters’ Local School Council, Leki led the effort to transform the school’s asphalt into a lush area that is now said to be home to more than 130 species of native plants.
Not long after, Leki became director of the school’s ecology program, overseeing the school’s natural spaces, supervising students as they harvest crops and leading field trips to places such as Sauganash to hunt invasive European buckthorn and Montrose Point to cast a pole for gobies. He has spearheaded compost and recycling initiatives as well. This work led him to be featured in CPS’ climate action plan for 2021-23.”

“In an email provided to the Tribune and the Board of Education, Leki told Rutkowski and LSC chairperson Liz Chandran on July 15 he would accept the offer, either as a CPS vendor or employee, and that he would seek to restore the other 30% of his salary through grants and fundraising through an independent organization. Chandran declined to comment to the Tribune.
“The entire community was under the false impression that I had refused the salary reduction and refused to be a CPS employee,” Leki said in an email to the Tribune. “There’s written proof, yet the entire recorded LSC meeting shows the principal did not correct this misinformation and later doubled down on it multiple times in writing to the community and it was later repeated to the press by CPS.”
Nathan Hunter, an LSC member who participated in negotiations, sent an email to Leki and Rutkowski shortly after the July 20 schoolwide announcement to express his disappointment in the abrupt turn of events. Hunter told the Tribune it’s not too late to find common ground and extend another offer to Leki.” read more here

2 LSC meeting mark your calendar Tues, Sept 20. 6:30 in person. (if you can’t attend, see #3)

3 We know that many of you can’t attend the meeting on Tuesday. Many of you are deeply concerned, but unsure and still have questions, so you aren’t ready to speak out. And, we know that many many parents, students, and teachers are afraid of retaliation if they speak out.

So, you are invited to send in your questions, your comments, your letters. We’ll share them. The LSC won’t share letters until a month later, and then, only in the minutes, where they won’t be seen. We especially want to hear your questions and your feelings about all this. The community wants to hear from you, even if you don’t want to share your name, you could share how your family feels about all this.

4 Who’s Managing this Garden? Cucumbers and tomato plants ripped out!

Who is in charge of the garden?? According to Stuart L., of the LSC, the Principal is in charge of the garden. So I suppose it was he who gave the OK to rip out the tomato and cucumber plants in the plot just west of the synthetic turf field. These plants were grown as part of a 3rd grade project. The kids learned about seed varieties, their needs and timeline. They planted them in February and we raised them under grow lights. The students did observations and recorded their progress. When April came we set them out doors to harden in the garden greenhouse. And in May, the 3rd graders planted them, and tied them to stakes and the wire trellis, Later, gardeners, parents and children added cucumber seeds in between. This tomato / cucumber patch  produced fruit all summer long and into the school year, watered daily by the Waters Waterers. They were in full production at the start of school, as planned.

Funny thing about school community gardens: they may seem to not have any fruit. That is because the grounds are open and public, and we have 650 students. Every tomato, and every cucumber that is discovered, is eaten by our students. The plants are producing, but the fruit disappears. This is okay. This is the idea. Like with raspberries. They are all eaten. This is good.

Thus my dismay when I arrived at school one day last week and saw that all the plants had been removed.  Who did that? Who made that decision? What planted bed will be destroyed next? Who is in charge?  The Principal?? This plot had been reclaimed from an ill-informed planting of cultivar flowers by a contractor. They were quickly obliterated by the relentless energy coming off the sportsfield. They were unprotected. We ended up with a big dirt/mud patch. What to do? We planted turf grass along the sidewalk, and behind it created a long planting area. For some years kindergarteners planted potatoes there. Because the area was under constant assault by balls of all sorts, we came up with a good strategy. We would plant the potatoes, then set up an A frame over them with  those 5″ square wire concrete reinforcement  things. So the plants would start in the spring, balls would be deflected, and by mid June when the plants were reaching the trellises, the pressure came off, school ended. Through the summer the plants would grow and when school returned in Fall they would be ready for harvest. Who did this??

In Spring, as soon as the ground thawed, community gardeners would dis-assemble the trellises, rake off the old mulch for composting, pull weeds and till the soil. They would add 8-10 inches of compost. The Kindergarten students would come out on a garden field trip to learn about, sing about, and plant potatoes. They also learned about compost and the bugs that help make it happen, and the first wildflowers of spring.

When all was planted, the gardeners returned and mulched the area with fresh straw, re-assembled the trellises, set up the irrigation pipe, and for the next four months weeded and watered the area, so that by Fall it was ready for harvest.

Who is in charge of the garden now. The Principal? These assaults on the garden are infuriating because they disregard the work of the 3rd grade teachers and students and parent volunteers, the community / parent volunteers, and the former Director of Ecology, who has developed a whole plan for engaging the school and garden. 

We need a budget for garden stewardship.  The Principal has alot of things to do. The Principal should not be in charge of wood chips and creeping charlie control. The garden is complex and has a synchrony to it, and a culture that appreciates the volunteers and the bustle of life that goes on there.  We need to have a Garden Steward that can assist and communicate with teachers on their plans to help make them successful. 

Meanwhile, the gardeners are available to answer simple questions, like, is there a free plot where we could plant something new. No need to destroy the work of the community, just ask. The gardeners will be supportive.

5 Saturday, Sept 17 9-12 Garden Stewardship morning.

There are signs posted around the garden saying that tomorrow morning, a contractor will be there to put in a steel pipe from the playspace to the sink on the ugly shed to provide a hose spigot.

This was not requested by the gardeners. There already is a spigot at the sink that was installed by the gardeners years ago.

6 Sunday, Sept 18, Riverbank Neighbor invite Waters Gardeners to join them. Stay tuned for more info. Join the Riverbank Neighbors list here. Riverbank workday (family friendly) Sunday 9-11. We’ll be volunteering to support the North Center Sustainability Market before and after our riverbank workday, as part of our commitment to be role models for our children. Gratitude to all. details below.

7 Sunday North Center Sustainability Market

Are you curious about how to reduce waste, but don’t know where to start? Are you interested in more resources to help you on your journey? Join us for The Sustainability Market, hosted by Reduce Waste Chicago and the North Center Neighbors Association.

Formerly the NNA Recycling Pop-Up, The Sustainability Market will feature RWC’s Reuse & Recycle Pop-Up for you to drop off common household items not accepted by the city’s Blue Cart program, as well as retail vendors, artists and exhibitors focused on environmental sustainability.

The Sustainability Market’s next event is at the Northcenter Town Square, 4100 N Damen, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, September 18. View all events and a list of accepted items here.

Floristic Quality Index and Ice Cream

Hello Dear Friends,

Twenty+ people showed up on Wednesday night to work, play and enjoy food and music. We repaired a broken bench, pulled wheelbarrows of bindweed,  pruned the Ninebark (native shrub), raked the grass around the fire circle, removed the grape netting and harvested the last of the grapes in Journeys and Refuge Garden, and more. We made a small fire and cooked quesadillas, and Jeff, a school dad, serenaded us on guitar, while bats swooped overhead. All school families, friends and neighbors are welcomed.Tomorrow, Saturday September 3, from 9:00 until noon,

We will meet again to do more garden tasks, including the beginning of our Floristic Quality Assessment!

This scientific tool will allow us to qualitatively and quantitatively score our native plant community restoration. We will end up with an index number so that we can compare our garden with other restoration sites, and with itself, over time. Tomorrow we will begin identifying every native plant in the garden, creating a list, looking up the plant’s scientific name and Coefficient of Conservatism (C number). This number ranges from 0 -10, 0 being plants that, tho native, are weedy and aggressive, to 10, plants that will not tolerate disturbance of their very particular habitat and community. The list is then analyzed mathematically to come up with a score.

We know, from decades of study and work, that our garden is fabulously rich, ecologically speaking. Beginning with our ancient oaks, whose roots have held on to the mycorrhizal fungal associations necessary for a healthy native plant community, to the effects of 25 years of prescribed burns, our garden hosts at least 120 native species. It is an ecological, historical, educational, cultural and community treasure, nurtured by generations of school families and friends. 

So, join us and learn and enjoy these wonderful waning days of summer.

And for those of you who can’t get enough, we will be working on the Riverbank on Sunday, 9-11:00, another powerfully beautiful and ecologically significant site.  Meet at Berteau and the River. And, a reminder that next Wednesday’s Garden night will include a field trip to the riverbank for a walk around, possible seed collecting, fire and food. 

Mr. Leki

Mr Leki testifying at CPS board today at 10:30 (online)

 If you can tune in to the 10:30 CPS Board meeting at 10:30, Pete Leki will testify. There are also a total of 50 others from across the city who will testify on other topics.

Letter from Pete Leki below;

I’ll be testifying to the board of CPS downtown this morning at 10:30. 

You can watch it live at

In the time since the most recent news article, the principal sent a letter to me, which seemed, at first, to ban or restrict me from the garden. However, with the intervention of the alderman, I’ve been allowed to continue to garden as a volunteer.  This first year principal has stated that he now manages the garden. 

He underestimates the expertise, effort, and time I dedicated to my job.  He expects the volunteers that I managed to step up and do the job that I did, including managing themselves.  I also submitted a letter to the LSC, detailing suggested corrections for the minutes of the previous meeting, and asking to be allowed to comment in the August LSC meeting. Instead, they ignored my letter and seem to have violated the open meeting act by not admitting me to the virtual meeting until they made a motion to adjourn. My corrections about misstatements regarding my job and the ecology program were ignored. 

It takes good community relationships to manage hundreds of volunteers. The gardeners are doing the best they can, but they are deeply concerned about the future of the garden. 

Additionally, I’ve started a podcast, titled, Mr. Leki Radio, which is linked on our website,

Tonight, we’ll have garden night, 5-sunset, with the usual tasks, food, music. All new and old community members and school families are welcome to come enjoy the garden and learn. We’ll learn the latest flowers in bloom and in seed and will have a task list for young and old.

Pete Leki

Garden this evening, 5 until dark

Dear Waters School Community Garden Friends,
Join us this evening for garden stewardship, fellowship, shared food and music. The garden is a place to feel peace, and courage. We need both.
Thanks to the awesome people who spoke in favor of the ecology program and garden at yesterday’s LSC meeting. I was not able to “get in”. I clicked on the LSC Zoom link three times and waited to be admitted. Nothing. I called a friend. She got in. I asked her to write in the chat that I was not being let in. I called CPS Downtown to complain.
Finally, I was in, just in time to hear a motion to adjourn after only 1/2 hour.
Thanks to the 1,000+ people who signed the petition.
See you this evening,