Is ornithology the antidote to the pandemic? The SF high school pushes passion projects


The red-tailed hawk spun slowly above its head as a group of about a dozen high school students studied the raptor, ignoring their phones and the majestic view of the bay as they huddled on a cliff in Marin Headlands.

“This bird was an egg four months ago,” said Allen Fish, a raptor expert from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy who was leading a birding expedition one recent afternoon.

For students at Independence High School, an alternative public school, this classroom at 900 feet above sea level was something that felt like heaven after 18 months of remote isolation.

The teens tried to take a closer look through binoculars as Fish explained why Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands was a bottleneck for raptors every fall as birds of prey sailed through thermals and tailwinds to cross. water to San Francisco, then head further south on their annual migration.

There was a Cooper’s hawk, then a sharp-headed hawk, each appearing to contemplate its path or envision a mouse meal on the ground.

The experiential classroom is not the norm in many large public high schools, but at Independence High, principal Anastasia Klafter threw away part of the post-pandemic education textbook, realizing she could reimagine learning. and helping students readjust to school after long social distancing.

Golden Gate Raptor Observatory Principal Allen Fish and Independence High School Principal Anastasia Klafter watch a field guide on a classroom birding trip to Hawk Hill in Sausalito.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

San Francisco High School is quite unique, offering its 220 students a flexible schedule, where they attend school, meet teachers once or twice a day, but largely work independently at the Inner Neighborhood School. Sunset or at home.

It is not a complementary school, but rather an alternative option for a range of students. Some are athletes, dancers or competitive actors, while others simply enjoy the unstructured schedule and still others have special needs, including anxiety or other mental health issues. , which require something other than what they would find in an overcrowded urban school.

Beyond Independence High, the pandemic has presented an opportunity, according to many educators and academics, for teachers and administrators to rethink teaching and learning, using technology, space and time in classroom inside and outside of school to do things differently.

Klafter decided that every Wednesday would be Passion Project Day, when students would choose a teacher-created class based on something the instructor enjoys doing.

Some students make soap, with a good dose of chemistry. Others weave textiles, which combine art and mathematics. Klafter decided to offer bird watching, which she discovered during the lockdown.

“Literally, looking out my window, I saw birds that I had never seen before,” she said.

She searched for them online to identify them and found that there were bird hotspots all over San Francisco and the Bay Area.

She was addicted.

She wondered if the students would feel the same.

They do.

“I’m in the wild,” said Ri’Keyah George, 17. “I love watching birds in flight.”

The Independence High senior signed up for birding in the fall, but has long noticed birds in her Hunters Point neighborhood in the city’s southeast, including snow egrets and pelicans browns, as well as the countless howling seagulls.

Ri’Keyah likes to look at them rather than name them, but she’s pretty proud that she can say, “Oh, he’s a red-tailed hawk. “

But really, “it’s more about just watching them,” she said. “I feel like I’m always in the clouds.

Klafter said, “COVID has given us permission to throw away the structures that were not working and to reinvent space and time to better support students.”

The Passion Project curriculum aligns with the school’s goal of ensuring that every student has an adult in school who knows and supports them.

Most Wednesdays the principal takes a group of students to find birds, in the Presidio, Golden Gate Park or beyond, including Milpitas a week ago, where the teens were able to release birds that had come from ‘be banded for identification purposes.

Ariana Niu, also a senior, was familiar with the blue jays and crows that inhabit her Sunset neighborhood, but she began to see more of them, in the trees, in the sky.

Raptors really interest the 17-year-old.

“I always wanted to be an owl,” she added, noting that what she loves most about birds is their ability to travel. “They’re like a private jet.”

Back on Hawk Hill, Fish paused to watch the students, necks outstretched, eyes scanning the sky as they asked him to identify them each. In the midst of bird identification, he explained the physics of thermal and thermal currents and why raptors don’t want to expend energy flapping their wings to migrate thousands of miles.

“The average red-tailed hawk born in the Presidio has a 60% chance of dying in its first year,” he told the students, adding that migration is a physiological imperative and they are smart enough. to know how to catch a tail wind.

He smiled.

“Raptors are a drug entry into birding,” said Fish, explaining his 40-year obsession with birds of prey. “And birdwatching is an entry-level drug for caring about the environment.”

As the fog began to accumulate, obscuring the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline, the students were still on the hunt for birds. No one pulled out a phone. The field trip hadn’t looked like a school, they said, despite the biology, physics, geography, and environmental science built into the trip.

“It was fun,” said Mia Heather, a senior. “I feel like I have a lot more exciting opportunities that other schools don’t have.”

Jill Tucker is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker


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