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Digging in

January 30, 2002

Deirdre Newman

Sonny Nasca picked up a shovel and started heaving dirt out of a hole

in the ground outside his Corona del Mar High School classroom. As he

struggled with the shovel, his teacher, Suzy Thatcher, came to the

rescue, grabbing onto the shovel while providing words of encouragement.

"Push, push. You're strong, you can do this," Thatcher said.

Sonny, a student in Thatcher's special-education class, got a workout

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Monday morning as he and other special-education and mainstream students

helped to build a koi pond in the garden outside Thatcher's classroom.

Thatcher could have had the pond installed solely by professionals.

Instead, she invited her students to roll up their sleeves and flex their

muscles to get a hands-on experience with nature.

"One of the things with students with severe challenges is that it's

important for them to know they make a difference," Thatcher said. "No

matter how challenged they are, they can change the world."

The garden was certified as a schoolyard habitat last year and has

provided the backdrop for some butterfly releases, Thatcher said. She and

the students have also added host plants in an effort to develop the

garden as a hospitable environment for animals and insects.

The koi pond was a natural addition, Thatcher said.

"It will have fish and tadpoles [the students] can watch grow,"

Thatcher said. "They will feel a sense of responsibility for nature."

Students in all three of Thatcher's special-education classes

contributed to the effort, including Carlee Crouch, a petite 13-year-old,

who didn't hesitate in hoisting a shovel larger than she was and getting

to work -- digging away longer than most of the other students.

"It's hard on your arms," Carlee said.

Senior Rebekah Washburn also pitched in, checking out information

about koi fish on the Internet and getting knee-deep in dirt as well.

"Interaction with the special-day students helps me because I don't

have a lot of patience," Rebekah said.

After his turn with the shovel, special-education student Kaina

Hardwick proudly flexed his muscles for Rebekah to admire.

"They're so strong," she said.

While Thatcher's students and some parent volunteers sold $1,600 worth

of candy bars in a week to raise money to install the pond, a resident

provided his company's services basically for free.

Mark McMahon, who owns Unique Outdoor Features in Costa Mesa, took a

lighthearted approach with the students, needling and cajoling them to

dig harder and faster.

"I want to see the dirt in the wheelbarrow," McMahon joked as the dirt

flew through the air.

McMahon said he was impressed with the students' enthusiastic digging

efforts.

Before the koi pond is complete, Thatcher intends to place a time

capsule inside the hole to capture the essence of her special-education

classes for the future.

She said she is most proud of watching her students rise to the

challenges presented them.

"I have watched these kids flower when they are focused on what they

can do. With high expectations, it's kind of like the metamorphosis of a

butterfly."

* Deirdre Newman covers education. She may be reached at (949)

574-4221 or by e-mail at o7 deirdre.newman@latimes.comf7 .

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