Simone Smith
Simone Smith

Back to school — just mentioning those three simple words can conjure up a whole host of thoughts, memories and emotions, a spark of excitement and a hint of trepidation. Taking a quick and unofficial poll, I asked a random sampling of friends, family and children what popped into their heads and it was quite the mixture. Kids were excited for back-to-school shopping, helping to get younger siblings ready, seeing their friends again (and what they will be wearing), finding out about their teachers and who would be in their class(es). There were those dreading going back to school and their loss of summertime freedom and those who were looking forward to joining in on some extracurricular school activities such as dance, art or robotics. Some have fond memories of their favorite school teacher, “story time,” learning how to read or work out math problems. Teachers are excited for a new school year and meeting their new students and parents are a mixture of nerves and relief.


Santa Margarita belongs to the Atascadero Unified School District with K-5th grade students attending Santa Margarita Elementary and older students generally moving on to Atascadero for junior high or high school.
This year the procession of new K-5 students making their way up the hill to school begins August 14 but their time won’t just be spent sitting in classrooms with their noses in books, pencils on worksheets or eyes on the chalkboard. With all the talk about testing and
academics, we know that learning happens in many ways and can vary between individuals. Learning and memory expert Jim Kwik emphasizes multi-sensory learning, noting that the more our senses are stimulated, the better we learn, i.e. singing the A,B,C song, counting blocks, drawing pictures or planting a row of lettuce. Besides their regular studies and rotations through P.E., science and music, students and teachers at Santa Margarita Elementary have a couple of additional resources for more learning opportunities, those being the school garden and an “Artist in Residence” program.

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Although the school garden has existed for many years, it’s use and maintenance has depended on the support and involvement of administration, staff and community (PTSA and other organizations). A sign on the fence declares the garden as a “Healthy Sprouts 2013 Award Winner” to recognize and support youth gardening programs. Currently, the garden is used in a variety of ways by both teachers and students — it’s open to all classes and teachers have the option to sign up for weekly one-hour rotations through a district-backed program with lessons provided by One Cool Earth. This program uses the garden as a “learning laboratory” to integrate next-generation science standards into project-based lessons focusing on food, waste and the environment. Mrs. Black, the upper grade teacher who oversees the garden and runs the garden club said that the garden has great support from the principal — the PTSA provides $500 annually for equipment and supplies and parents donate veggie sprouts and volunteer on workdays. The garden club meets once per week during upper grade break for lunch in the garden followed by some work after eating. The garden is a great place for hands-on learning and according to Mrs. Black, kids love the garden and see it as a safe and quiet space where they can connect with nature and decompress if they are having a difficult time.


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The Santa Margarita Elementary Artist in Residence Program is a recent addition to the school starting back in October of 2017. This special program has a dedicated art room with Artist in Residence, Mrs. Mathiesen, and supplies funded by the PTSA. The program is available as an option for teachers to sign up their classes for one hour per week lessons which focus on various artists, artistic styles, techniques, types of media, color mixing etc. and can be incorporated with current class studies, whether it’s about math, science, historical figures, events, or you name it!


With students being involved in the creative, hands-on activities of artwork, they are engaging other parts of their brains to learn more about their subjects. Past works have included pattern studies, celebrating Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500-year anniversary, California history and nature. Art created by the students can be seen displayed in town at the Santa Margarita Library and in the school office. Kids have fun in this program and if they want more, Mrs. Mathiesen has two after-school art clubs during the week, one for lower grades and one for  upper grades. During art club, kids are busy designing and painting huge colorful murals which can be seen on school walls. The first finished mural depicts the local oak tree habitat with more underway on either side depicting Chumash life and the mission days. With the support of the principal, the backing of the PTSA and the enthusiasm of the students, more is planned.

Going back to school is exciting. Learning can be fun and great things are underway thanks to all who are involved and making it happen at Santa Margarita Elementary.