Seeding Special Education

A special ed teacher who practices inclusion is like an aerial trapeze artist, swinging from bars to balance beam with a grace that defies the conventions of gravity. For 30 years, my youngest sister, Evelyn Margolin, has been bouncing from class to class, working with her students at all levels of ability to adapt the curriculum for their special needs while communicating with their parents and caregivers and teaming up with other teachers and assistants. A small, nimble figure, wearing playful jewelry reminiscent of cats doing cartwheels, she more resembles a kindergartner than the administrators who run Cameron Ranch Elementary School in the San Juan Unified School District, with 45,000 children the fourth largest district in California.

When I invited Evelyn to the Big Ideas Fest last year, she responded as if she’d just won the Teacher of the Year award. For her, it was a chance to be with other creative types who know that education – like its students – needs to grow up and change. She also wanted to work on an idea she had for expanding the little school garden she and her students had planted the past few years to help her kids develop life skills.

Big Ideas Fest 2011 didn’t let her down. From the moment she walked into the gleaming lobby of the Ritz-Carlton with a view of the Pacific Ocean extending to the horizon, she knew the world she was entering had no limits. Of the Action Collab, where she helped prototype a solution to one of that year’s education challenges, she said, “I collaborated with an amazing group of people who took me out of my small school community where change is slow and exhausting to a much broader place with limitless possibilities.

“Since the Big Ideas Fest 2011, I’m thinking much bigger,“ she added. I knew this would be the place to stimulate her, but I didn’t realize what an enormous impact this three-day convening would have on her working life.

This year, Evelyn applied for and received thousands of dollars in garden grants to build a greenhouse, a compost bin, and a portable kitchen station for cooking things like pizza with fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden. During the summer, to brush up on her gardening skills, she volunteered at a local nonprofit organic farm, where a children’s summer camp was in session. At her school, besides teaching gardening skills, she’s integrating gardening with lessons on cooking, healthy eating, the importance of farm-to-table food, and California agriculture. And the children are sharing their knowledge and skills with their families.

The garden complex is changing the culture of Cameron Ranch Elementary School and the surrounding Sacramento community. In my sister’s own words: “This project – a result of learning to think big at Big Ideas Fest 2011 – is having a positive impact on our students’ pride in their school and increased parent and community participation.”

And Evelyn’s ambitions are growing along with her children’s plants.   She says, “ I want the project to grow. I’m looking forward to Big Ideas Fest 2012 to take me to that next level.”