Spending more than two hours on a bus in a traffic jam did not dampen the enthusiasm students had for the task they came to complete. These sixth graders from Learning Gate Community School were at the Schultz Preserve, which is located in southeastern Hillsborough County, to plant 5,000 plugs of marsh grass.
The planting was coordinated by the District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Program and Tampa Bay Watch.
Learning Gate Community School began as a private, nature-based school and now is a charter school of Hillsborough County Public Schools.
“Our school motto is ‘Nature is our best teacher,’ ” said Cari Meigs, a Learning Gate Community science teacher. “A lot of the science we teach is hands-on. In addition to being involved with Tampa Bay Watch’s ‘Bay Grasses in Classes’ program, we also have an organic garden at school and we’re planting a butterfly garden at Brooker Creek Preserve.”
As part of the “Bay Grasses in Classes” program, students maintain and harvest marsh grass from nurseries at their school. These nurseries provide a source of native wetland plants to use in habitat restoration projects.
“The students plant the grasses they grow,” said Martha Garcia, Tampa Bay Watch environmental scientist. “We use grass from other sources for our public volunteer plantings.”
After a short briefing, the students were divided into ten groups of five.
“You can see how the marsh grasses up the shoreline survived,” explained Brandt Henningsen, SWIM environmental scientist. “This area needs to be replanted because it gets the bulk of the wave action during storms.”
Henningsen says typically only about 40 percent of the new plugs planted survive in this particular area of Tampa Bay, which is why restoration efforts have been an ongoing process.
Each group of students was paired with a Tampa Bay Watch staff member who supervised the students’ efforts or with a volunteer from G. E. Elfin. G. E. Elfin is a group of volunteers who work with several community groups, including Tampa Bay Watch.
Forest Thibideau, a G. E. Elfin volunteer, says the difference between working with kids and with adults is that the kids have more enthusiasm.
“It’s a great opportunity to have them learn about the environment, and I think they soak it in more than adults,” said Thibideau.
In addition to volunteer supervision, the sixth-grade teachers and District SWIM staff and interns also assisted each group.
Trish Ollen, an intern with the SWIM Program, said she enjoys helping with volunteer plantings and getting out in the field.
“I raised three kids; now I am doing what I want to do,” said Ollen. She is slated to graduate from the University of South Florida in the summer and may continue her education.
As the students worked, a dolphin swam into the nearby channel and everyone stopped to watch. But there was still a lot of marsh grass to plant. The adults rallied the troops away from the visitor.
After a couple hours, the bare beach was covered in the newly planted marsh grass plugs.
“I think I dug at least 60 holes today,” said Nick Dolan, a sixth grader who worked particularly hard at planting and had come to the preserve with extra bottles of water that he shared with a classmate.
After completing their task, the students, some muddier and wetter than others, loaded back on the bus. Mission accomplished.
The hope is that in addition to experiencing an educational and fun day away from school, the students will share the lesson they learned with their families.