Once trashed, now saved: Students preserve rocky pineland next to their school

PHOTO: Robert Morgan Educational Center students enjoy caring for the pineland preserve next to their school. But first it took years of organization.

There have been numerous starts and stops to restoring a vital, important rocky pineland preserve nestled on the edge of Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park.

But thanks to the dedication of Robert Morgan Educational Center teachers and students, as well as other organizations that care about the environment, this rare ecosystem, in South Miami-Dade just south of Richmond Heights, is coming back to life.

“When RMEC was built in 2002, about five acres of the original land was given to the school to maintain as a nature reserve,” said Science Department Chair Vandana Gudi. “The school was responsible for its maintenance. Alas, everyone apparently forgot about that!”

Over the years, before Gudi joined the school, the site was used as a public dumping ground. And as more and more invasive tall grasses grew into thickets, the preserve became dangerous for the students to even enter.

“We did not have the key to open the gate, so the original lock had to be cut and a new lock was put in. But we could not walk inside for more than a few steps as the growth of the grasses was very thick,” Gudi said.

“To begin with we needed a permit to get the preserve cleaned up professionally. That took five years of back and forth but finally we received it in March 2019,” Gudi said. “The next step was to find professional arborists who were familiar with the native plants but would get rid of the invasive species.”

Gudi contacted parents of her students, other teachers, Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden personnel, organizations such as the Institute of Regional Conservation, the county’s solid waste management department and others to clear the preserve professionally.

“The preserve was unkempt for almost 17 years, and growth was so thick that it was not safe for any students or teachers to enter it. It needed to be treated by experts. That took another year, and we settled with IRC,” she said.

The IRC started cleaning the preserve in August 2020, she said. And as it was getting cleared of the invasive tall grasses, a lot of garbage that had accumulated over the years was revealed.

“We found about 20 car and truck tires, building materials, glass bottles, cans and such,” Gudi said. The preserve was only half cleared when the first cleanup by the students was organized in January 2021.

“By April 2021, the preserve was completely cleared of the unwanted vegetation and its true beauty was unveiled.”

Now, it is slowly becoming a peaceful place once again.

“This preserve is a charming piece of the original ecosystem,” Guid said. “The IRC personnel pointed out the geological features such as solution holes, which were now revealed. We also found rare plant species, quite a few butterflies and a variety of mushrooms and mosses. They are still rare, but the native grasses have started showing up, too.

“Since October 2021, every year as a part of Fairchild Challenge’s million orchid project, we are growing orchids in the preserve. Since August 2021, we have held quite a few community service events for students.

“The first couple of times, we had to remove some fallen trees from the preserve, and the Environmentally Endangered Land (EEL) personnel graciously made several trips in their trucks to the dump where the wood is responsibly disposed of.”

She said the Robert Morgan Educational Center students enjoy visiting and cleaning up the native pinelands next to their school.

“Being in the nature preserve, I feel comfortable. In here, you tend to see a lot of the same faces. It is like a close community. Being there with each other feels, while I am absorbed in the work, I am in a silent place and at peace. I cut tall grasses and it is rather soothing,” said a student named Edwin.

Another student, Leylani, said, “I really enjoy working in the preserve because it connects me to nature and allows me to get fresh air as well as being able to help the environment. Mrs. Gudi makes it really fun and enjoyable as well by teaching us about different types of organisms.”

And student Giuliano said cleaning up the nature preserve is always fun.

“It feels good to clean up my school, allowing it to look better and be safer for our students and staff. We can always have a great time while still learning about the biodiversity of the plants and organisms that we have in the nature preserve.”

Gudi, who teaches Biology-1 and AP-Biology and is the sponsor of the Science National Honor Society, said it is important to care for this preserve for several reasons.

“First, this was the ecosystem throughout South Florida until the last 100 or so years. Humans started to live in South Florida, and destruction of the ecosystem began as the land development began. Today, there is only a fraction of the original ecosystem left in scattered patches throughout South Florida. The vegetation supports the fauna. Thus, to protect the local biodiversity, we all need to protect these fragmented rocky pinelands.

“Second, this is an excellent opportunity to introduce our students to the native habitats. I get comments like ‘I have never been in a place like this before!’ or ‘I feel like I am in Jurassic Park.’ And third, this activity makes students aware of their natural surroundings.

“Students are going to protect only what they know about,” she said. “This is my humble attempt to make my students environmentally conscious.”

PHOTO: Paintings by artists Britten and Marcelle Zanetti are up until May 4 at Grove Gallery and Interiors.


Take time to step away from the busy world to experience the beautiful art of Marcelle Zanetti and Britten.

Zanetti’s oil and acrylic compositions transport viewers to where realism meets abstraction. From two-foot canvases to towering masterpieces, each of her pieces is filled with the magic of the tropics and the artist’s unique interpretations.

Artist Britten paints a world of infinite creativity and trust as she reflects on life without limits or boundaries. She says she does not think about what she is painting and lets each piece guide her, inspired by the unexpected beauty it reveals.

Their “Two Woman Exhibition” at Grove Gallery and Interiors will be closing May 4. It opened in March to a festive gala reception.

The gallery portion of the longtime Coconut Grove store features national and international artists several times a year with special opening receptions and shows. Visit at 2884 Bird Ave., and call 305-445-7401 for more information.

Write to ChristinaMMayo@gmail.com with news for this column.