OAKLAND -- After years of visualizing, hoping and planning, Bishop O'Dowd High School held the ceremonial groundbreaking April 11 for its long-awaited, state-of-the-art Center for Environmental Studies.

For sure, returning and future students will reap the benefits of the center when it opens late this year or early next year.

"We've been working toward this moment since 1999, when I looked out my window and saw this was blocked off," O'Dowd teacher Annie Prutzman said of the hillside dirt area behind the chain-link fence on the north and northwest sides of the campus.

About a year later, Prutzman -- along with then-fellow teacher Tom Tyler and the help of many students -- began to make their vision a reality in the form of the Living Lab, a combination garden, wildlife habitat and ecological study area of some 4.5 acres.

The CES is the next step in helping O'Dowd stay at the forefront of high school science education. Still, many previous graduates already have benefited from the school's long-standing commitment to science.

"(Prutzman) taught our son, and he's now planting trees in the townships of South Africa," said Mary True, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony with her husband, David McAneny.

Their son, Will McAneny, already has graduated from O'Dowd, but their daughter, Annie McAneny, currently is a sophomore.

"It's a terrific program, and (the CES) is a great addition to the program," David McAneny said.


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Already, the Living Lab benefits more than just science classes. Indeed, before the groundbreaking ceremony began, art students had come to the facility to create their watercolor paintings. Tyler, now a sustainability and environment consultant, recalled the weedy, eroded hillside that became the Living Lab.

"We have a debt of gratitude to those who saw potential in this place," he told the groundbreaking gathering. "A lot of labor and a lot of love has gone into this."

Much of the ongoing Living Lab project involves the restoration of native plants. But a pond, food garden and bee hive also feature prominently.

"Over the years, this project reflects thousands of hours of student time," Prutzman said. "Everything was eroded; we had to build soil, adding compost. We're still working on that."

And the work has paid off. At the very least, it has improved the aesthetic appeal of the land.

"We have plant communities, wetlands around the pond -- it looks like it's been here forever," Prutzman said, "but it's all ecological restoration."

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