Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

De Luz Ecology Center comes alive with hands-on lessons

Rick Monroe

Special to the Village News

When fourth grade students in Kimberly Yerkes’ class at Live Oak Elementary School visited the De Luz Ecology Center last week, they learned from an expert about the California Gold Rush.

The expert is Scott Gordon, the center’s teacher who obtained or designed most of the authentic props – including hides, a prospector’s tent, a wash board, sewing and rope-making tools, a hand water pump, and of course pans for prospecting or “winning” gold for answering classroom questions correctly.

The students also did chores from the gold rush era like making butter and rope, and washing clothes, then checked off tasks from a list on a clipboard.

“It gives them the flavor of what it was like to study in a one-room schoolhouse,” Gordon said.

“I enjoy working with the kids,” he added. “It really brings me joy.”

Students are taught both in the classroom and outdoors and enjoy having lunch under the trees.

The original De Luz Post Office building was hauled onto the property, which is scattered with majestic oak trees. The nearby stream has dried for the season, but students from Potter Junior High School have built an area where students can pan for “gold” as a final activity,

Except for San Onofre Elementary, all the schools in the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District send their students in grades three through six to the center. (Because of its distance and location, San Onofre has its own programs based on its nearby beach environment.)

The expanded program at De Luz has different programs for each grade level.

Third graders study Native Americans, specifically the Luiseño Indians. Students examine their culture including the significance of the oak trees and acorns and go on a nature hike.

Fourth graders look at the history of California, focusing on the Gold Rush and Sutter’s Fort.

Fifth graders take a closer look at the local crops and food chain.

Sixth graders have a new Survivor program based on the book “The Hatchet.” Two of the highlights are archery and having teams build life-size water-tight tents from local material.

Third and fourth graders have a one-day program, while the fifth and sixth graders make back-to-back day trips.

The program is finishing for this school year and the center won’t be part of the summer school options. For 2022-2023, third graders will visit in August through October, sixth graders in October through January, fifth graders in January through March, and fourth graders in April and May.

The De Luz Schoolhouse was established in 1927 as a one-room school and served the community until 1968 for students through eighth grade.

After the school closed, the 120-acre property was deeded to the Fallbrook Union Elementary District and retrofitted so students could visit for field trips. Nearby residents used it as a community hall and nature trails were established. It was later developed as an ecology center for district students.

Gordon took over as instructor and has served in the “unique place and teaching position.” He’s been an instructor since 1987, first as a student teacher. Katy Duffin-Tobler was the teacher for 1990-1991 before moving to Northern California and Gordon came back in 1991 on a 60% basis because of budget limitations.

In 1992-93, 47 inches of rain closed the roads to Fallbrook and Gail Cunningham worked with the students that lived in De Luz. The center remained closed in 1993-94, and the next year Gordon returned.

The program closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19 and this year Gordon came back.

Recent improvements have been for air conditioning and internet, but the district also wanted to establish a three-year curriculum plan.

Third and fifth grade students were the focus in previous years, but when it reopened this school year, it was based on a new program developed by a team of district staff.

“De Luz holds a nostalgic place for residents because they went there as kids themselves,” said Aimee Plette, one of the staff members giving a report to the school board on March 28. “Now, they are getting to experience it through their own children and it’s just very delightful.”

Others on the planning committee are Stephanie Hall, Maria Flaherty, Lukas Smith, Brittini Rudolph and, of course, Gordon.


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