The Wigwam Motel is a horseshoe-shaped collection of nineteen stucco structures fashioned after teepees located on a stretch of historic Route 66 in Rialto, California. The final installment of designer Frank Redford’s Wigwam Villages (there were seven, three remain), built in 1949, was purchased and lovingly restored in 2003 by a family who emigrated from India and became US citizens. They continue to own and maintain the Wigwam, added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2012, to this day.
When I meet Juanita Chan, Coordinator for STEM, Related College and Career Pathways, and Adult Ed at the Rialto Unified School District the next morning I mention how well I slept in the concrete teepee. Her enthusiastic response sets the tone for the next 48 hours of my stay in the Inland Empire:
“Oh my gosh you’re staying at the Wigwam?! I’ve always wanted to go in one of them—what are they like inside?”
I get the distinct feeling that beyond a good night’s rest, I’ve inadvertently acquired some measure of credibility from a gifted and passionate educator whom I’ve quietly admired and respected for the last year and a half.
Rialto USD is comprised of 19 Elementary Schools, 5 Middle Schools, 3 Comprehensive High Schools, 1 Alternative High School, and 1 Independent Student High School serving over 27,000 Inland Empire students—85.5% of whom are counted as unduplicated pupils.*
The history of this place, and the story of what Ms. Chan and the district are doing to provide effective student-centered learning are inexorably intertwined, and illustrate another instance of how district-level support, committed educators, and community partnerships—working in concert with a place itself—enhance student engagement and support student success. Environmental literacy is woven throughout their innovative strategy to serve their students.
Rialto differs from the other districts in the This Is Environmental Literacy series in that they are one of a handful of Leading-edge Exemplar districts supported by the California Environmental Literacy Initiative. However, Rialto USD began laying the groundwork in 2003—well before Superintendent Torlakson’s Environmental Literacy Task Force convened in 2014 to produce California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy.
At that time Dr. Edward D’Souza (then Director of Math and Science, now Associate Superintendent) successfully applied for a California Math–Science Partnership Grant, and Rialto USD was included in the first cohort of grantees. The first grant cycle was limited to 4th and 5th grade teachers, and included then-4th-grade teacher Juanita Chan. As part of the grant activities, the district partnered with UC Riverside and CalPoly Pomona to develop and deliver programs and professional learning for teachers in the district, and form partnerships that would support teachers and students. One of these early partners was Inside the Outdoors hands-on environmental education program administered by the Orange County Department of Education.
Ms. Chan quickly realized the value and potential impact of this opportunity and became deeply engaged, earning both her single and multiple subject credentials and attending statewide science rollouts. She became a Teacher on Special Assignment, developed science lessons for every grade level, lead professional learning for teachers in the district, and became the Science Lead for the district. Significantly, both Ms. Chan and Dr. D’Souza began as classroom teachers in the district where they are now leaders.
The CA Math–Science Partnership Grant ended in 2006; the momentum, clearly, did not.
Everyone that I had the opportunity to visit with in Rialto has a deep, personal commitment to this place and its people. Nearly all of them have roots here, some going back several generations.
Photographer and Inland Empire native Lewis deSoto provides context for this place more meaningfully than I could ever aspire to:
First came the Spanish, who named San Bernardino, then the Mormons, who were tricked into the middle of turf wars between opposing indigenous groups. Next came the new Americans, who swept in like waves of difference—Spanish, Mexican, Irish, German, Japanese, Chinese, African American, and then the refugees who blew in like dust from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas during the Depression.
This place was called the Inland Empire, and despite its name it was free of singular leaders and tyrants. It was an empire of things: oranges, tract homes, steel, freeways, earthquakes and floods, desert and deep water, crackling fire in the hills. It was an empire of smog, the asthma it gave me, that is still with me to this day. It was the empire of mountains, deserts, and weird inland seas. It was marvelous and abject. It was framed by opposites: blue mountains with white snow presiding over crispy weeds in sunbaked lots.
We Cahuilla watched it happen all around us. We were the invisible insiders. We were there among the gridded territories of difference. We mingled in the markets and exchanged glances at traffic lights. Lettered streets, numbered streets kept out the history and let us all float free without real suburban planning. Agriculture begat industry begat suburbs begat malls. When the balance upended, as it did from time to time, the decay and neglect compounded. Left behind were vast tracts of empty buildings that glowered like ghouls, like black holes.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were stretches of months during which the mountains became invisible, cloaked behind a wall of sulfurous carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, lead particulates, and ocean haze. It left behind in me the panic of asthma, of strangling on dry land and days spent in bed breathing painfully and shallowly.
Now, thanks to modern regulations, the days are clearer, but the city still struggles to find the kind of order envisioned by the designers of the grid. Basic services cannot be delivered by a bankrupt government, so the city suffers. Individuals push on, teaching, repairing old houses, and creating visual and poetic culture in this place where anything is possible but rarely ever occurs.
With much respect and appreciation for Mr. deSoto’s lived experience and eloquent expression, it is the last fragment of his final sentence that stands out: if anything is possible but rarely ever occurs, then what is happening at Rialto USD is even more notable, and highlighting and supporting the work there takes on added significance.
Part two of this article will look at some of the people, programs, and partnerships (including utilities, local government, community-based and civic organizations, nonprofits, and local businesses) that work collaboratively toward lasting impact at the district—from facilities and nutrition services to the classroom—and how environmental literacy connects all the moving parts.
* CDE defines an unduplicated pupil as any student to whom one or more of the definitions included in Education Code section 42238.01 apply, including students eligible for free or reduced price meals, foster youth, and English learners.