"Dolphin/Gator Alliance"- the Beginning
of a Beautiful Friendship
Dolphins and alligators are not two critters one would normally expect to find hanging out together, nor would one expect students from a distant high school to be caught dead palling around with a bunch of elementary school kids on the beach. But folks in our quirky little community often define themselves by their unwillingness to do things the same old, boring way and Beach Elementary Principal Larry Wood just happens to be one of those folks. On Tuesday, October 22nd, something will happen on our island that has never occurred during Wood's 42-year career - 18 kids from the Island Coast High School 'Gators' in northwestern Lee County will take a bus to the Beach Elementary 'Dolphins' to collaborate with 5th grade students on a project to learn first-hand about our water quality.
Called the 'Dolphin/Gator Alliance', the project - which includes both sets of students making presentations on their findings before Town Council and the Lee County School Board - marks the beginning of a new partnership between both schools that will see our students eventually making the 25 mile trip to ICHS to learn about their tilapia farm and herb garden.
The whole thing started when the Marine Resources Task Force (MRTF), an advisory board to Town Council, decided they wanted to do some community outreach with Beach Elementary. Vice-Chair Keri Weeg and Councilwoman Jo List then met with Wood. When the discussion turned to the freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee and the impacts of all that nutrient pollution on our island, Wood nearly sprang from his chair with excitement as the idea hit him.
"Island Coast High School has three academies, one of which is a 'Natural Resources Academy' where they have their own tilapia farm and grow herbs and vegetables on school property," Wood told us. "They do things like water testing all the time, so I thought - especially in light of what's been going on with our water - it would be really cool to have their kids teach ours how to test the water so they can understand what's happening."
Within days, Wood got ICHS officials and the school board agreement for the idea, and Weeg secured funding from the Town via MRTF's budget to fund the cost of the buses.
"On October 22nd, 18 students from their Natural Resources class will come here at 8am, pick up our 5th graders and go to three places on the island where they will test the water then come back here for lunch, which is being provided by Truly Scrumptious and paid for by Fish Tale Marina owner - and longtime school supporter - Al Durrett, " Wood told us. "The locations haven't been selected yet - next week, their kids will communicate with ours via Skype and pick where they want to test."
Wood told us that the ICHS students will put together the testing equipment and show their younger counterparts how to enter the data they find. The 5th graders will also do GPS work on the sites with the idea that they will return to the same exact locations in the future to test the water again.
"Once we get the data, the high school kids will work with ours to analyze it and make conclusions with the plan being to present the findings to the Board of Education and to Town Council," Wood said. "The project ties in with the school's STEM curricula, and I think it's a great way for them to learn about our water."
Last week, Wood told the 5th graders and their teachers - Mrs. Wood and Ms. Fraley - about the project, and they have been busy ever since preparing for it. Fraley and Wood had the students read recent articles about what's been happening with our water and how all the extra nutrients have caused the death of seagrass and oyster beds. They were then tasked with summarizing what they read and putting the most important facts on a big sheet of paper for all to study.
On Tuesday morning, we met with five students designated as 'speakers' for the 5th grade - Kayla Sandell, Grace Piccirillo, Alianna Reimann, Bryanna Mauer and Trevor Zamniak - and they told us they are most excited about using the data they find to try and come up with a solution to the water quality problem.
"So far we've made papers, and divided into groups to summarize the 10 articles we read," said Grace, who ended up being both the writer and speaker in her group when another kid got sick. "We then shared what we'd read amongst all the groups."
The students told us that they are also figuring out a way to test the water without actually touching it, as some are concerned that it isn't safe.
Trevor said that everyone is looking forward to teaming up with the high school kids to work on a problem that's got folks all across the state up in arms and has even made the national news.
"Mrs. Wood even went up in a helicopter to take pictures of the brown water," he said. "This is a huge problem here, and I think it's cool that we get to try to solve it."
Principal Wood told us that he expects the water testing project to be just the beginning of a long-term collaboration between the two schools, and has already planned a fundraiser for November 9th where he, Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker and Durrett will serve pancakes to raise money to pay for busses to take our kids to ICHS.
So will this new Dolphin/Gator Alliance find a solution to something that has eluded two decades of politicians and scientists? Stranger things have happened in a community that refuses to play by the rules - just ask Principal Wood.
Keri Hendry Weeg