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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Grauer School, the Least Tern, and You

This story, part uplifting and part heartbreaking, is about what it’s like to be endangered. It’s also an impactful trip to the beach here in Cardiff, home of the California least tern. 

The Grauer School, the Least Tern, and You
By Stuart Grauer

My new column consists foremost of a photo of our new, local least tern sanctuary, which I will explain.

Blown-out dune habitat for the critically endangered least tern, South Cardiff State Beach, January 7, 2024 (photo, Stuart Grauer)

Restoring the San Elijo Lagoon
One of the many great blessings The Grauer School has is our neighbor, the San Elijo Lagoon, a sizable ecosystem of phenomenal natural beauty, diversity, and importance in our area. Our students have spent countless hours over many years helping restore this ecosystem (mainly removing invasives or planting natives), just walking through, jogging, creating writing or art, or studying science. Those of us who walk and surf those beaches were heartened a few years ago as critical habitats such as coastal dunes and tidal marshes were being restored in our area.

These restorations are a part a massive San Elijo Lagoon project called the Cardiff Living Shoreline in Encinitas. The project, which took about eight years, aimed to restore disturbed habitats, manage invasive species, and plant native species, thereby improving habitat for various wildlife species. 

A Haven for the Least Tern
A major aspect of the Cardiff Living Shorelines Project in particular, located along the western edge of Highway 101 at South Cardiff State Beach, involved the construction of engineered sand dunes. These dunes were built with sand sourced from the San Elijo Lagoon. 

Following the sand dune (re-)construction, volunteers spent what seemed to be a couple years seeding the new dunes with native plants collected locally. We all loved our new dunes, which made the beach feel like east coast sites, like Martha’s Vineyard or Montauk Beach. Tasteful, East Coast-style fencing was installed to delineate public access paths through the dunes and to protect them from erosion. The sand was pristine.

And one of the most beautiful parts of that restoration was put by Seaside Reef in the new dunes, around where our students sometimes surf. This is the habitat especially for the endangered California least tern. It was an incredible restoration and a model of local action that impacts much wider ecological arenas. 

Can We Protect Endangered Species?
The California least tern (Sternula antillarum browni) needed protection because of several factors that threatened its survival and led to its classification as an endangered species. The key to these conservation efforts was protecting and restoring their natural habitats, including managing human activities (read: keeping us out!), controlling predators, and monitoring populations to understand their needs better. These efforts are crucial for the survival and recovery of this specialized, local species whose habitat had been largely wiped out, mainly by development and human disturbance. This beautiful bird got federal protection as an endangered species (in 1971). In fact, I will never forget, when we were developing The Grauer School out of raw land, me and David Meyer saying something to the effect of: “If they find a least tern nesting on this property, we are done for!”—you can’t develop that land. They didn’t, but we preserved a lot of natural land anyway.

The California least tern.

Parallels Between Small Schools and Endangered Species 
This winter was a rough one and our coastline took a major pounding. Walking along that beachfront before the new dune system, it looks like a good eight feet of sand is scoured out. You can’t miss it. The good news is that, despite significant sand dune erosion during this winter season, the project's engineered revetment wall is largely intact, effectively protecting South Coast Highway 101 from potential flooding and damage. That dune system was designed to act as a first line of defense against wave action, and there has not been significant flooding or undermining of the highway since the project's installation, so far. But most of the sand is gone.

The point is that sometimes, no matter how hard we try locally, it feels like we are a small pawn on the chessboard of global forces that are intractable. 

The struggle of the least tern reflects our own at The Grauer School, which also is subject to the pull of all sorts of forces. We stand as advocates for the unique and the local. But in education, as in ecology, the trend towards much larger, more uniform systems threatens the survival of small, community-focused entities. 

What is that force that has made schools get consistently bigger for 120 or so years?  Who knows! As the least tern clings to its habitat, our small school clings to its ethos, both facing the challenge of preserving identity in a world that often overlooks the needs of the 'small' in favor of 'big' solutions and institutions.

In this world, we are least terns. Global patterns prioritize broad-scale, big-systems approaches at the expense of local diversity, community identity, and sustainability, leading to a loss of both cultural and biological richness. 

Think Globally… but Act Locally
I began my teaching career as a strong proponent of incorporating global perspectives into education and I focused on those networks long before it became a curricular mandate. Today, after a long and productive teaching career, I still recognize the value of teaching a global outlook to our students; however, over time I have been drawn to the power and impact of local focus. The real teachers are local. The intimate connections, relevance, and immediate effects of community-based actions have impacted me and my students profoundly. We make valued friends all over the world, but we can find “the answers” and the hands-on resources we need in our connected communities. Our sanctuaries are right outside our front and back doors. 

Schools and habitats alike thrive where they are nested.

We strive to protect the small, local school. Likewise, we treasure the small, incredibly beautiful least tern sanctuary that environmental visionaries designed down the street, that so many lagoon volunteers and staff spent years on. There is good news and bad.

Grauer 7th Grade students enjoying the ocean waves at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas - October 19, 2023

Storms and Resilience (in School and on the Beach)
The truth is that, after 50 years of interactions with global issues in education, the global landscape for me has become mainly something that streams off the internet. The non-local, ubiquitous institutions, corporations, and governments that I deal with now are so complex, so overbearing, so inattentive, and so big that not only do I often feel invisible and helpless (and sometimes exhausted) when dealing with them, I get a powerful sense that their staffs feel this way, too. We’re least terns.

Moreover, this metaphor can be extended not only to symbolize the small schools but to our individual students, and the personalized, localized attention they receive in such settings …versus the way they feel and perform when put into impersonal systems and ranked by standardized tests and prestige club activities they feel great pressure to list on college applications. As one parent of two phrased it, “We're still always a little disbelieving that a haven such as Grauer exists.” Small schools can be sanctuaries for treasured, safe relationships.

I don’t think it takes complex systems to raise a child, despite the benefits of pharmaceuticals, transportation, lawyers, and some other perceived necessities. Big systems rob students of their childhoods, freedom, peace of mind and, if national data is correct, their happiness and mental health. Systems like:

  • District-wide or national educational policies that rob the uniqueness of the educational community
  • Large class sizes which ultimately fund greater district and state bureaucracies
  • Zero tolerance policies that essentially prevent us from understanding individual children when they screw up, even in ways we might have as kids
  • Over-reliance on technology that pounds our mental “coastlines” and exposes student transgressions orders of magnitude greater than they would have been exposed when I was growing up
  • Emphasis on quantitative data far beyond qualitative
  • Name your own examples…

I don’t have it all worked out, and I do love travel. I'm grappling with my own use of services like Amazon, recognizing they're not local. And I understand that elsewhere, tragically, the Tasmanian devil is severely threatened. But here is where I am trying to head if possible: I am thinking globally and acting locally. 

For me, the questions and answers to the biggest issues in the world are fundamentally available right out my office window or down the block. This is about efficacy: if we can look after one another, our ecosystems, our least terns, and our school, I want to participate. I understand that my students and I will not be saving the forests of the world, but we simply must study the forests or ecosystems in our community. The new least tern sanctuary down the street is instructional.

Where sand dunes were. (photo, Stuart Grauer)

The least tern sanctuary created by the Cardiff Living Shoreline project used large granite rocks as a foundation. On that foundation, they laid more riprap, infilling the riprap with sand, and then creating dunes using the excavated sand. The dunes were then planted with native dune species like beach primrose and red-sand verbena. 

For the California least terns, an endangered species, the dunes provided the elevated, vegetated nesting site, vital for sensitive species. For our students, the dune system created an amazing example of restoration.

After four successful years, this winter’s storm surges and high tides pounded those dunes. The sand dunes closest to the ocean are designed to take the brunt of the high tides and storm action, ensuring that water did not reach Highway 101 or undercut the road material. That much worked, even as the dunes were pounded repeatedly with high surf.   

In some places, the dunes are now gone, and one of those is the place we all created for the least terns. The least tern restoration site was demolished. It is gone, washed away.

The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, now known as the Nature Collective, oversaw that whole project. I hope that we can all, as a school community, get out there together and replant that least tern sanctuary as soon as the Collective is on that. I hope we will find better ways to build a durable sanctuary. If you are not local, I hope you will participate in your local environmental or conservation project. 

The least tern sanctuary was beautiful after growing in for a few years and now it looks something like the rubble-run earthquake zone I visited a few months ago in Morocco. So, now you are ready to study the photographs attached to this story: an ecosystem destroyed. Let me know what you see. Or go there.

Action: The Highest Form of Teaching and Learning
Let’s get out there and help if further restoration is planned. If you are a teacher or just a hiker, you can join weekly habitat restoration events where a Nature Collective biologist oversees the process. To reserve your spot, visit Nature Collective - Volunteer, or call (760) 436-3944.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Blown-out dune habitat for the critically endangered least tern, South Cardiff State Beach, January 7, 2024 (photo, Stuart Grauer)

The California least tern.

Grauer 7th Grade students enjoying the ocean waves at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas - October 19, 2023

Where sand dunes were. (photo, Stuart Grauer)

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

Click here to order Fearless Teaching® today

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