Fifth-graders aid preserve

Robinson Elementary kids provide native plants.

By Traci Rader, Times Correspondent
Published February 22, 2008

PLANT CITY - It took four years, but students from a Plant City elementary school can say they helped bring more native plants to a local nature preserve.

Over the past few school years, Judy Der and her fifth-grade students at Robinson Elementary School have taken part in a school project that culminates next month with the planting of several native plant species at nearby Crystal Springs Preserve.

It all began with a class discussion during the 2004 hurricane season.

After one storm, tap water was off limits for several days at the school due to contamination concerns. A discussion about water quality ensued. Before long, the kids had organized basic water testing at the school with the help of Earth Force, a group that fosters local environmental awareness among young people. They later went to Crystal Springs Preserve in nearby southeastern Pasco County to test its water quality.

That was just the beginning of their work at the nature preserve. They sought help from Tampa Electric Co. and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, enabling them to buy plants last year and 300 native plant seedlings this year. With some help from kindergartners at the school, they repotted the seedlings into 1-gallon containers.

During the past few months, they nurtured the plants to a healthy, transplantable size. In April, they'll plant the wild petunia, raving star, mimosa and coreopsis at Crystal Springs Preserve.

"It helps the kids academically and it's great character education. It teaches the kids they are not the center of the universe," Der said.

The lessons learned at the preserve have now come full circle. Der's students also got an Earth Force Award and $1,000 from Staples. With that money, the fifth-graders created a coloring book called Florida Unique Species to share their knowledge of native and invasive species with their younger schoolmates.

Environmental stewardship and civic involvement go hand in hand, said Scott Willis, executive director of Suncoast Earth Force.

"These students serve as role models to their peers by showing how a commitment to environmental citizenship can help make a difference,"

Der sees it in even simpler terms.

"When kids learn that they are in charge and have a say, the leadership pours out of them," she said.