Students from W.E. Putnam Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama, scout for songbirds on a newly cleared trail next to campus. Between classes and home life, the teens get little exposure to nature, their principal says. It's just one of the many inequities they face in a city that's still struggling to desegregate. Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon
Students from W.E. Putnam Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama, scout for songbirds on a newly cleared trail next to campus. Between classes and home life, the teens get little exposure to nature, their principal says. It's just one of the many inequities they face in a city that's still struggling to desegregate. Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

Conservation

At This Alabama Middle School, the Birds Belong to Everyone

An outdoor classroom in Birmingham strives to bring students, nature, and environmental justice together.

With binoculars slung around their necks, their heads craned toward the treetops, the kids look like characters from Stranger Things—except they aren’t exactly exploring the paranormal.

The 10 or so students are hiking in Birmingham, through an old-growth forest that arcs around the W.E. Putnam Middle School campus. Overhead, a canopy of loblolly pine blocks the gray sky. In the distance, afternoon traffic thrums toward strip malls.

“This is kinda scary,” one girl in a track jacket and high-tops says. When asked if anyone spends time in the woods, the other kids shake their heads and shrug.

Adult chaperones from local nonprofits guide the group through walls of invasive Chinese privet. Ansel Payne, executive director of Birmingham Audubon, pauses every now and then to call out the birds. “Listen, that’s the Brown-headed Nuthatch. Nuh-uh, nuh-uh.” The kids repeat him: nuh-uh, nuh-uh. A few of them spy the tiny tree clinger and point it out to their classmates.

“I like the woods,” a 14-year-old named Destani says as the group moves forward again. She’s wearing a black T-shirt; her tongue is pierced. Before moving to the city, she lived in a rural part of Alabama and walked the woods behind her trailer regularly. Now, she doesn’t get outside much.

Principal Terrell Brown rides the bus home with students living in Gate City, one of three public housing communities that fall within his district. “What you find out is, once they go home, that’s it,” he says. The middle schoolers, he adds, are often keeping an eye on younger siblings and are told to stay indoors where it’s safer while parents work multiple jobs.

Brown is in his first year as principal at Putnam. When he arrived last summer, he says the school felt old and neglected, despite its brick walls being decorated with the words, “Excellence is our only option.”

Then, at the end of the hall through a set of double doors, he spotted an outdoor classroom built by Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF), an area nonprofit that champions food education. The half-acre farm is the gem of Putnam’s campus, Brown says, with a greenhouse, wildflower garden, and rows of thriving vegetables. That day, Kelly Baker, a JVTF instructor, was giving students a tour of the space.

Seeing Baker and the outdoor classroom gave the principal hope. Here was a unique way to instill a natural-world connection in the kids, while making them feel proud and invested in.

Since Brown’s first day on campus, Putnam teachers have built out that connection, by working with JVTF and its partners Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO) and Birmingham Audubon. Together, they’re developing curricula that includes birding and native-plant restoration, both in the gardens and on the short, underused trail along campus. The program, which is slated to take off next fall, comes at a time when Birmingham activists are calling for a new era of environmental justice to address decades of racial disparities and offer a better inheritance for the city’s youth.

Video: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

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utnam sits in a valley in the Red Mountain Ridge, a 33-mile-long spine made of limestone and hematite. To the north are Birmingham’s factories, where smokestacks dot the horizon before giving way to farmland and pockets of Appalachian foothills. To the south are the “over-the-mountain communities,” as locals call them, where more affluent families have fled for generations, seeking a safer—and whiter—environment.

If you search for photos of Birmingham in the 19th century, you’ll turn up images of stone-faced child laborers in the Avondale Mills textile plant, located in the same district where part of Putnam’s student body lives today.

Founded in 1871, when prospectors started digging up the core ingredients for steel (coal, limestone, and iron ore) in the surrounding hills, Birmingham earned the nickname “the Magic City” as its population seemingly boomed overnight. Over the next century, the steel industry buoyed the city—until it collapsed in the 1970s, shuttering plants and devastating communities with scarred, empty plots and pollution.

The industrial bust also exacerbated white flight, which began in the 1950s, just as the Civil Rights Movement gained speed. The Magic City’s population dropped by more than 10,000 people over 10 years, sparking a decline that still continues. Today, Birmingham is 72 percent black and remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Recent urban renewal and reverse white flight has brought attention to the city’s award-winning chefs, celebrated artists, renowned research universities, and urban nature preserves and historic parks, where local birders celebrate the accessibility of rich biodiversity.

But most Putnam students haven’t seen the boon of progress. Instead, their neighborhoods remain stagnant: Corner markets don’t stock fresh food; public transit is unreliable; and crime is common.

In 2017, mayoral challenger and Putnam graduate Randall Woodfin promised to bring revival to every neighborhood. “Birmingham is only defined by its lowest-quality-of-life neighborhood,” Woodfin said in an interview during the campaign. He won. A year and a half later, he still has to make due on his words, especially in the environmental and education sectors.

Like many inequities, environmental issues in Birmingham disproportionately burden communities of color. A 2018 report by a local watchdog network found the majority of modern pollution sources are located in mixed, low-income neighborhoods. The American Lung Association ranks Birmingham one of the most polluted cities based on the year-round presence of air particulates.

Activist organizations like the Southern Environmental Law Center and GASP are working to strengthen lax air- and water-quality regulations and ensure existing laws are being followed. Riverkeeper groups advocate for the continued clean-up of city waterways, many of which have long been deemed unsafe. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency designated North Birmingham a Superfund Site, warning residents of toxins in the soil. The remediation is still in progress.

In a city known for being the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, people of color lack basic access to food, land, and clean air. The result is a legacy of disparity that’s seeped into the school system. Principal Brown says some of his teens can read on the 11th- and 12th-grade level, but overall, the school has a failing grade.

In Alabama, the laws written to measure schoolkids are more likely to label economically disadvantaged students of color as failing, says Teresa Michal, Putnam’s district representative for the Birmingham Board of Education. The state’s grades are based entirely off standardized tests, which experts argue, deepen class and race disparities. Michal points out that among the 38,000 students attending “failing” schools in the state, only 460 were white. Of the 320 students enrolled in grades 6 to 8 at Putnam, 91 percent are black and 75 percent are eligible for free lunch.

Giving those students another lens to learn through could set up a different model of success.

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n the Saturday morning after the students’ hike, dozens of volunteers, parents, teachers, and kids gather under the farm pavilion behind Putnam to wait for instructions. One volunteer wears a rain jacket and an orthopedic boot, a sign of the group‘s devotion. “There’s a white oak that’s older than the city of Birmingham back there,” Payne tells the crowd.

Kelly Baker, the JVTF employee who runs the outdoor classroom at Putnam, learned of the overgrown path at the edge of campus in early 2018. She then asked Payne to see if it’d make a good birding location for students. On his first scouting trip, Payne spotted Red-shouldered Hawks, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and a Barred Owl. The habitat, he realized, was thriving, but it needed some love before the students could share it as well.

“There’s 30 years of Chinese privet to clear,” Payne says with a laugh, offering the volunteers gloves, clippers, and bags for collecting brush. The crew gets to work. Liz Hughey, co-founder of DISCO, which leads creative-writing workshops in Birmingham schools and publishes students’ works, shuttles the teens to the site and helps them prepare for a poetry reading later. Teachers, former and current, chat over coffee.

Clad in L.L.Bean, Baker shows a few parents around the outdoor classroom. The Alabama native teaches full-time at Putnam and runs two clubs where students learn each step of the farming process—from prepping the soil and planting seeds to washing dirt off the harvest and counting money on market day. “On Fridays we set up a table, and community members will walk through the doors and pick up the bag [of produce] they pre-ordered,” Baker says. That’s when the kids get to see the benefit of their hard work.

The outdoor learning complements Putnam’s classroom education. “I collaborate with teachers,” Baker says. “We’ll come up with a lesson for how to bring whatever they’re teaching inside out to the farm.” JVTF works with seven campuses in Birmingham; on each they aim to create an environment where students can learn, explore, and grow a healthy future.

With the Putnam collaboration, ecology is part of the mission, too. Using a $600 grant from Birmingham Audubon, JVTF purchased binoculars, bird books, and feeders in 2017 to craft new lessons around the trail. In addition to honing their green thumbs, students will graph avian activity and numbers, monitor weather to track migratory seasons, and examine how birdy adaptations (specifically beaks, feet, and feathers) can aid survival and reproduction across habitats.

Though Birmingham Audubon’s role at Putnam is still small, Payne sees big potential in the nature around campus. The chapter is investing another $10,000 in the project with the help of a grant from the Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants. Starting this summer, there will be more landscaping, sign making, and general upkeep of the trail to foster its use among the kids and their families.

Payne says his organization hopes to shift a paradigm that might have been paternalistic in the past, acknowledging that Audubon has historically served a wealthy, white populace, not a marginalized one like Putnam’s.

“We’re not going to right all the wrongs of Alabama history,” he says. “But frankly, we can look forward to a future where black folks aren’t denied their patrimony on this land. They have a relationship to nature and a relationship to Alabama that deserves to be acknowledged. Part of that is the birds belong to them just like they belong to everybody.”

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s the weeding winds down, a small group converges on the greenhouse, where Claire Datnow is sharing a scrapbook of old photos from her days teaching at Putnam. Her accelerated science class in the 1990s cut the trail that’s at the center of today’s event.

Seeing the outdoor classroom on campus now, the environmental writer and Birmingham Audubon member feels that Baker has picked up her baton. The gardens and the woods, she says, ensure that the new generation has a sense of ownership—one that ultimately translates to conservation-minded voting power.

“They are the ones who’ll be sitting on boards, working for industries, and making decisions in their neighborhoods,” Datnow says.

Back on the trail, the students have plunged into a clearing filled with benches and a podium, set up decades ago by Datnow and her class.

The kids are buzzing with nervousness as they encourage each other to read the verses they’ve written with DISCO. A few of them are whispering lines aloud, making on-the-fly edits before it’s their turn to share. All the while, birds croon in the background.

By the time the students take the stage, the cool indifference from the hike is gone. Destani, the only kid who admitted to liking nature earlier, walks to the podium and reads:

“Dark feathers, color of our sky, polluted but beauty within. Everyone says crows are metaphors for death. But I believe they resemble life and the beauty within all of us.

We are the crows.”

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