Bringing nature and the community into the school

What began as a teaching moment and a community improvement effort has turned Ascher Silberstein Elementary School into a place where students, team members and the community can appreciate and learn about nature. 

It all started when Principal Erika Pasieczny noticed how many dogs ran around loose in the neighborhood. She started to tackle the problem by instilling in students the responsibility that comes with owning pets. 

“We realized that our community wasn’t doing a good job of taking care of our pets,” said Pasieczny. “So we started an animal room, so we could teach all the students how to care for them.”

Once the room was set up, Pasieczny, known as Dr. Paz by the school and community, wanted to expand and applied for and won a Dallas ISD Innovation Engine Grant, which awarded Silberstein and 20 Dallas ISD neighborhood schools $50,000 each to support exploring and implementing an innovative program or initiative. 

Through the grant, Pasieczny expanded the idea of having animals not only indoors, but also outdoors.

“We decided to make good use of an area that wasn’t being used and make a garden with eight raised beds, and a chicken coop—so it’s an extension of our animal room,” she said. 

To commemorate the new chicken coop and garden, the school recently hosted a community celebration which brought together more than 100 parents, students, and community leaders to celebrate this milestone. 

The new chicken coop not only provides a variety of learning opportunities for students. Its popularity on social media has also turned it into a marketing tool. Several parents whose children currently attend charter schools in the area have asked to tour the school to see the new educational offerings. Of those, several are now planning to send their students to Silberstein next school year, Pasieczny said.  

Volunteers come to work in the garden and are interested in helping with the chicken coop and animal room. While their help is appreciated, Pasieczny makes sure that it’s the students who do most of the work so they can learn. 

One of the most popular places for students to spend time in is the animal room, which includes both furry creatures and reptiles. You can find anything from a snake, a bearded iguana, an axolotl, or a guinea pig for which the students care. 

Sandra Guzman, a teacher assistant at Silberstein, who has worked at the school for 17 years, sees the immediate impact the animal room has had on the students. 

“When students shut down, you immediately see them smile again. They come to this room and they forget that they’re having a challenging day,” she said. 

Eileen Salas, a fifth-grader, said that working in the animal room has helped her understand and gain compassion for an unlikely creature—Larry, a bearded dragon. 

“I love working here because it makes me feel calm helping these animals, and it’s just a great feeling,” she said. “I learned that bearded dragons are friendly. I used to be afraid of lizards but working with Larry has helped me get rid of my fear of lizards.”

Students and community members are not the only ones enjoying the new amenities at the school—so are the team members. This past semester, every afternoon a wheel was spun, and a staff member got to take a half a dozen eggs home. The winner would then send pictures of the food they prepared with the eggs produced in the chicken coop. 

Besides eggs from the chicken coop, some team members have made fresh salsa from tomatoes and peppers grown in the garden. 

With so many new ideas and possibilities for these spaces, Pasieczny says this is just the beginning of something new that will continue to open doors not only for Silberstein, but for the students, and community, as well. 

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