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Karin Niehoff is teaching kids to see the forest for the trees

Arbor Day Celebrations

The 2017 Arbor Day Celebration will begin at 11 a.m., Friday, April 28, in the Grinstead Amphitheatre. Ken Brown will MC. Others on the program include Mayor Rachel Hundley, guest speaker Supervisor Susan Gorin, musician Bo Sapper, poet Michael Sheffield and students from Crescent Montessori.

• The Overlook Trail Arbor Day hike will begin at 12:30, led by docent Rosemarie Marks. Meet at the Overlook Trail kiosk, 198 First Street West.

• The Mountain Cemetery hike will begin at 2:00 p.m. Interested hikers will again meet at the Overlook Trail kiosk. Amateur historian Fred Allebach will lead the hike.

• Saturday, April 29, two Arbor Day hikes to the Wolf House are scheduled at Jack London State Historic Park, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Meet at the Ranch parking lot.

• A Day of the Child / Arbor Day event will take place at Maxwell Farms Regional Park on Saturday, including nature walks, special exhibits, rock climbing, music and other activities. Begins at 11 a.m., ends at 3 p.m.


Karin Niehoff has brought her students to the Sonoma Plaza for the second time this week. They scurry around, measuring the diameter of the rose garden with a trundle wheel, then figuring out the perimeter of the historic park in the middle of Sonoma – and, from that, the area of the Plaza itself.

The Plaza, by the way, is 167 meters on a side – according to the perimeter hand-walked by the Crescent Montessori School class. Which makes it 27,889 square meters – just under seven acres.

When they take a break, they eat healthful crackers they brought from home and sip mango peach tea. “Are we allowed to have more?” asks one. Then they’re off again, hand-made clinometers and string (to calculate the height of objects) in hand to measure the largest palm on the Plaza.

Though this is education-as-usual for Niehoff’s class of third- through fifth-graders, it’s a special occasion for the teacher: on Friday, Niehoff will accept the award as Conservationist of the Year from the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley. It will take place at the annual Arbor Day Celebration, beginning at 11 a.m. at the Grinstead Amphitheatre.

In the brief eight years since the City of Sonoma has thrown its weight behind an annual Arbor Day Celebration, the honor of Conservationist of the Year has only grown in credibility. First to be so honored was Bob Cannard, Sr. – though he passed away five days before the award – in 2009. Subsequent winners have included Pat Elliot and Mickey Cooke in 2012, Tom Rusert in 2013, and last year’s winner Joanna Kemper, among others.

Ken Brown, former mayor and always active in planning the celebration, sees the award as doubly fitting, giving Niehoff’s participation in previous Arbor Days. “Her kids are well-behaved, polite, smart – they always bring poetry to the event. They help plant the tree, they sing, they just get into it.”

The relationship the Montessori students have with the Plaza is deeper than most school children have for their City Hall, but it forms a core of Niehoff’s curriculum. “With species of trees from countries all over the world, students can have sense of belonging to the greater community of life; a secure, loving, interesting and inviting place,” she says.

“I think if I conserve anything it’s children’s curiosity,” she says of the award, but she’s being modest. She’s also inspiring those children by using the Plaza as an open-air laboratory for their inquisitive young minds.

Her classes walk to the Plaza from the school, located at the Sonoma Community Center a few blocks away, and spend a couple hours at a time exploring it in all its aspects – biology, botany, mathematics and history. “They know quite a lot about City Hall,” she says, in a way that should make the City Council tremble.

Then she clarifies: “They know that the City Hall has the same design on all sides, and where the basalt came from that built it – up off Cavedale Road.”

The 11 children range from third to fifth grade, yet they’re busy doing the kind of math that might challenge their parents. They are completely and wholly unintimidated by the science, or the math, or the opportunities the Plaza provides: it’s part of their classroom – and that’s a big reason Niehoff is being honored as Conservationist of the Year.

Arbor Day Celebrations

The 2017 Arbor Day Celebration will begin at 11 a.m., Friday, April 28, in the Grinstead Amphitheatre. Ken Brown will MC. Others on the program include Mayor Rachel Hundley, guest speaker Supervisor Susan Gorin, musician Bo Sapper, poet Michael Sheffield and students from Crescent Montessori.

• The Overlook Trail Arbor Day hike will begin at 12:30, led by docent Rosemarie Marks. Meet at the Overlook Trail kiosk, 198 First Street West.

• The Mountain Cemetery hike will begin at 2:00 p.m. Interested hikers will again meet at the Overlook Trail kiosk. Amateur historian Fred Allebach will lead the hike.

• Saturday, April 29, two Arbor Day hikes to the Wolf House are scheduled at Jack London State Historic Park, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Meet at the Ranch parking lot.

• A Day of the Child / Arbor Day event will take place at Maxwell Farms Regional Park on Saturday, including nature walks, special exhibits, rock climbing, music and other activities. Begins at 11 a.m., ends at 3 p.m.

“There’s a complete curriculum right here in the Plaza,” says Niehoff. “With this award, I hope to be able to push getting that curriculum in every school. I don’t know why more schools don’t do this! Eighty percent of Sonoma’s schools are within walking distance.”

She came to Sonoma from Chicago in 1986, where she had also been a Montessori teacher. Twenty-two years ago she founded the Crescent Montessori School to replace the old Vintage Country Day School. But even with her 44 years of teaching experience, every day is still an education for her, too.

Two of the girls are busy collecting fallen rose petals to make rosewater foot bath for their parents, while another puts a stethoscope to the thin bark of a sycamore to listen to the sap flow in its “veins.”

“People don’t develop at the same speed,” says Niehoff. Her students, who range in age from 8 to 11, call her Mrs. K. “Schools are the only place where people are separated by age; it’s not that way in the workplace.”

One boy races up, string and clinometer in hand. “It’s 126 feet to the top of the flag pole!” he says proudly, pointing toward the City Hall.

“It’s absolutely a joy to hear that Karin is the conservationist of the year,” said Tom Rusert of Sonoma Birding. “Karin really helped us in the early days of developing the Christmas Bird Count for Kids – the reason we have a ‘budding birder camp’ as a component of the Christmas Bird Count for Kids is because of Karin.”

He also spoke of the help the Montessori classes gave to his development of the Sonoma Plaza Tree Map in 2009. “The kids would ID the trees, they would make collections of leaves and bark, and they did reports on these trees, all the way around the Plaza. It was absolutely magnificent.”

“Trees should be a value for every community,” says Niehoff. She points out that her class has calculated there are 281 tons of carbon sequestered in the Plaza’s trees, by measuring their circumference and height. “Sonoma is a model for how a small community can do things on so many levels.”

Another girl comes up and hands her a small blue flower from a vine entwining the roses. Niehoff says she and her students, who call her Mrs. K, have a relationship. “They’re at ease telling me what they’re doing, keeping me in the loop,” she says happily. “They keep me young,”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.