OAKLAND -- People around the world Monday will celebrate Earth Day. Bishop O'Dowd High School effectively, though unofficially, got the celebration off to a head start with the ceremonial groundbreaking for its Center for Environmental Studies on April 11.

The 5,000-square-foot, $3.6 million center, in keeping with O'Dowd's vision of science education and "green technology," will feature two large indoor laboratories/classrooms along with a covered outdoor classroom. School officials hope to have construction completed by December or early 2014.

"It's a very happy day," Archbishop Alex Brunett, the Diocese of Oakland's apostolic administrator, told a gathering for the groundbreaking at O'Dowd's Living Lab. "A science lab is simply not a place where you learn a lot of facts, but where you can evaluate ideas."

Brunett, who went on to give a blessing to the project and those involved, headlined a group of dignitaries taking part in the ceremony. They included diocesan schools Superintendent Sister Barbara Bray, O'Dowd President Dr. Stephen Phelps, school Principal Pam Shay, former teacher and Living Lab co-founder Tom Tyler, student body President Sophie Vaughan and O'Dowd Board of Regents Chairman Glen Hentges, who served as master of ceremonies.

O'Dowd likely will hold a dedication for the new center when construction is complete. In reality, though, the CES is part of a continuing process that began with the former rock quarry on which the school was built in the early 1950s.


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The CES itself will continue to pay tribute to the school's history, as the walls, paneling, ceilings, decks and benches that will adorn the building came from trees felled on the north side of the campus to make room for the project. Those trees originally were planted as saplings by students from the class of 1956 as part of a detention program.

"We're here celebrating this milestone that has been about 60 years in the making," Tyler said while detailing some of the history of science education at O'Dowd.

Brad Goodhart, a teacher at O'Dowd from 1968 to 1994, played a key role in that history when he started an ecology class in 1970.

"(This groundbreaking) literally brings tears to my eyes," said Goodhart, who still teaches SAT preparation courses on Saturdays at O'Dowd. "When we first started, it was hard to get people to take ecology seriously as a class -- it was regarded as some sort of hippie thing. At the time, you couldn't even buy ecology textbooks from publishers. But this is incredible ... more than I thought possible. I'm thrilled; I really am."

O'Dowd teacher Annie Prutzman, who -- along with Tyler in the early 2000s -- cofounded the 4.5 acres of garden, ecological study area and wildlife habitat known as the school's Living Lab, ecstatically shoveled one of the first piles of dirt in breaking ground for the CES.

"It's obvious to everyone that the systems that support life on this planet are in trouble," said Prutzman, who teaches AP environmental science and serves as the Living Lab director. "The country as a whole wants people going into environmental work. The country needs people in environmental studies."

Along with constructing the CES, O'Dowd will expand its science curriculum to include such classes as biotechnology and zoological studies, among many others.

The school will add at least one more staffer as well.

"We're hiring a director for sustainability -- to head a communitywide effort for the greening of O'Dowd," Shay said.

As major a milestone as the CES might be, O'Dowd looks to expand and improve science education for many years to come.

"After the building's built, then some real work has to happen," said Shay, who added that the school faced the choice of letting the CES become traditional, ordinary classrooms or seeing it become something more.