Arborist trainees plant trees at Chicago elementary school

Jacqui Esguerra, an arborist apprentice with nonprofit Openlands, unloads trees from the truck at a planting day at Dixon Elementary School. (Carlyn Kranking / MEDILL)

By Carlyn Kranking
Medill Reports

Malika Jackson, special programs coordinator at Dixon Elementary School, wanted her students to experience nature’s beauty in the schoolyard, so she applied for a grant to have trees planted there.

Chicagoans can apply for a TreePlanters Grant through the nonprofit Openlands. In a non-pandemic world, applicants would bring their community together, gathering a team to plant 10 to 40 trees in their neighborhood. Then, Openlands staff would teach the volunteers how to plant, bring the correct tools and supervise.

But due to COVID-19, Openlands forestry workers are the ones who now plant the trees. And this spring, the organization’s inaugural class of arborist apprentices — four adults looking to build careers in arboriculture or forestry — are doing the job.

On May 4, the Openlands crew delivered Jackson’s 10 trees to Dixon Elementary School. Despite a light rain, they got right to work.

Malika Jackson looks at a buckeye tree on the Openlands truck

TREE DELIVERY — Jackson, left front, applied to have 10 trees planted at Dixon Elementary School. As the special programs coordinator at the school, Jackson leads students in activities such as growing vegetables. “I want the community, and especially my children, to see that they deserve to have beautiful things around them,” Jackson said. (Carlyn Kranking/Medill)

Lisa Mende, wearing a yellow-green Openlands shirt and vest, walks toward the camera, in front of a wagon with a tree. She holds the trunk for support as Griselda Venegas Murguia, wearing an orange rain jacket, pushes the wagon.

SPECIES DIVERSITY — Arborist trainees with Openlands wheeled the trees from the truck onto school grounds. Jackson was most excited about two pecan trees, but there were also a few black gum, buckeye and other species too. (Carlyn Kranking/Medill)

Two arborist apprentices wearing raincoats dig a hole for a tree. They're standing on either side of the hole, holding shovels, and a blue wagon is in the foreground.

RAINY DAY — Others might have stayed indoors on a morning like this, rainy and in the mid-50s, but it made for nice planting weather. The rain softened the soil, making it easier to dig. “What a pretty day,” said Openlands apprentice Griselda Venegas Murguia, right. “I like rainy, gloomy [weather] like this.” (Carlyn Kranking/Medill)

Victor Short kneels and lowers a young tree into a hole in the ground. Lisa Mende kneels opposite him, reaching her hand down to clear the way for the tree.

GREEN SCHOOLYARDS — Chicago Public Schools schoolyards have about 760 acres of impermeable surfaces in the city, paved with materials that don’t absorb any water, such as concrete or asphalt. Planting trees on green spaces of school property, as well as creating gardens and building play areas out of special absorbent materials, helps control urban flooding. Trees may even decrease the cost of citywide stormwater treatment. (Carlyn Kranking/Medill)

Jacqui Esguerra and Griselda Venegas Murguia dig a hole for a tree. The tree lies on the ground, next to the hole, with its leaves in focus in the foreground of the photo.

ARBORIST APPRENTICES — These tree-planters are among Openlands’ inaugural class of Arborist Registered Apprentices. The three-year program consists of one year training with Openlands, learning about trees and doing urban forestry work, followed by two years working with a tree-care company. The four apprentices do work in the field and go to lectures so they gain knowledge to be competitive in the arborist industry. “The person that is going to […] move up in the career quickly is [someone who] can really identify [trees],” said Tom Ebeling, community arborist with Openlands, as he led a classroom lecture for the apprentices about tree anatomy. “Even within the tree care industry, a lot of people do not have solid ID skills.” (Carlyn Kranking/Medill)

A newly planted tree stands in front of the Dixon Elementary School building, made with light-colored bricks. A pink bench sits nearby, and in the bottom right of the frame, Victor Short and Lisa Mende are there.

LEARNING GARDEN — With these new trees, Jackson can teach students more lessons about the planet and their place on it. “When I teach them today, I’m going to talk about the ecosystem [and] their part in it,” she said. “[They’re] the caretakers of the future planet […] so in this small way, I can get them started thinking about a larger scheme of things. When they get older, how can they provide a service to the planet?” Who knows, maybe those kids will want to become arborists and plant trees at schools for tomorrow’s children. (Carlyn Kranking/Medill)

Carlyn Kranking is a Health, Environment and Science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Carlyn_Kranking.