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Students get a look at world of water

A teacher uses a floating classroom to help students understand the importance of the Homosassa River.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Homosassa Elementary principal Bob Brust watches third-graders Marcie Heath, center, and Samantha Shilling check the temperature of water in the Homosassa River.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2000


HOMOSASSA -- Out on the Homosassa River Wednesday morning, 10-year-old Chris Ramos began thinking about another troubled waterway -- the Chassahowitzka River.

Chris, a Homosassa Elementary School third-grader, spends many afternoons swimming around the main spring of the Chassahowitzka River along with bass, mullet and manatees.

But aluminum cans and exotic weeds are just as much a part of the landscape as the fish, he said. So sometimes he dives for the cans, attaches them to a bag on his kayak and takes them away.

A thought popped into his head as he and nine other classmates floated down the Homosassa during an educational tour of the river.

"When I grow up," he said, "I'm going to make a big net and cast it out and pick up all the (weeds)."

The four-hour trip was part of an effort by school officials and environmentalists to improve the youngsters' understanding of the natural value of the river and their appreciation of how people have damaged it over the years.

Third-grade teacher Tom Stokes turned the two pontoon boats provided by River Safaris & Gulf Charters into floating classrooms. The youngsters, who piled into the boats wearing hats and sunglasses, barely had time to sit before they were handed coffee tins containing a simple thermometer attached to a string and clipboards so they could mark down salinity levels and temperatures.

"What we're trying to do is educate them to the need to protect the water," said Stokes, who challenged his students to notice every inch of their surroundings.

For many, the river is a familiar sight; some of their parents make a living off the waterway. But the trip created new opportunities for discovering how the river has put food on their tables and also why a boat trip down the scenic river is so much fun.

Organizers want the youngsters to become stewards of the water.

Holding up a small plastic gauge behind the school, Stokes read off the salinity level. The verdict: very salty.

"This is not water you want to put over ice and drink it," he said.

As they approached the opening to the river by Monkey Island, he said, "If you keep your eyes open, you will see a lot of wildlife." The youngsters, holding binoculars, jumped to the task and began pointing out the particulars of the surrounding wildlife.

"What kind of bird is that?" Stokes asked, pointing to the long-billed creature on a pole.

"A pelican!" they cried out. Stokes explained how the bird used to be an endangered speciesbut that many Florida birds have made a comeback. The Save the Homosassa River Alliance Inc., a non-profit group dedicated to improving the river's water quality, helped put the tour together. The group contacted the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which then arranged with the county school district to use part of a $15,000 grant for the project.

"They want to do it for the love of the river, and that's something we want to support," Beth Bartos, Swiftmud's in-school education coordinator, said. "The kids will never forget a day like this."

The boat went to the Blue Waters, where the students looked for manatees, before stopping at the Homosassa State Wildlife Park. After a short visit to the main spring, where they saw several of the large mammals and schools of fish, they returned to the boat for the second leg of the trip -- a visit to the Gulf of Mexico.

The tour, the third of four trips this week, hammered home some of the ongoing classwork.

In one lesson, the students recently finished seeing the effects of overfertilization. Stokes said he set up three plants, one of which was fed water only. The others got five milliliters and ten milliliters of fertilizer every day, respectively.

The fertilized plants did not live as long, he said.

"The best thing you can do with kids this age is visualize," Stokes said.

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