One day this past spring, three noisy buses drove four hours south from Zachary Elementary School to the Louisiana wetlands. Some 100 eager second and third graders clambered down the steps and got to work, planting 700 bitter panicum grass plugs on the beaches of Grand Isle to prevent coastal erosion.
It was the culmination of a two-year project called "Wetland Warriors: Fighting to Save Our Coast," which won the 2011 Disney's Planet Challenge grand prize for elementary schools.
"We were really inspired by how passionate the kids were when they began to learn how in danger we are," teacher Breigh Rainey said. "They liked the idea of being warriors in terms of taking action. Our amazing computer lab teacher, Stacey Hodges, organized a planning session for students, who identified four main goals: knowledge, action, awareness and perseverance.
Rainey and fellow teacher Kristy Gilpin supervised the students, who established a school nursery in collaboration with Dr. Pam Blanchard and the Louisiana State University Coastal Roots program. Hands-on work included digging ditches and laying irrigation pipe, then tending the greenery until it was ready for planting at Grand Isle, a residential barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico.
The students also created and sold educational books and hosted a community Wetlands Night, raising money through both activities to benefit preservation. They even laid the groundwork for a school-run Coastal Roots Radio AM station to further educate the community about something that touched the youngsters in a meaningful way.
"We had been learning about ecosystems, and of course Louisiana is known for its wetlands," Rainey said. "But we're four hours from the coast, so there was a disconnect. The project gave us a real connection to Grand Isle and a sense of ownership."
Shortly after students began the nursery, the BP Oil spill ravaged the coastline. "They were devastated for about an hour," Gilpin recalled. "And then they became these amazing little activists. They came up with ways they could help."
"I believe kids learn through experiences, not just in the classroom."
Warren Drake just started his tenth year as superintendent of the Zachary Community School District, located 15 miles north of Baton Rouge. He celebrated with the Zachary Elementary School grand prize winners in Disneyland, where he said the best part was "seeing the awe in the students' faces."
How big is the school district?
We have seven schools, 5,235 students, about 620 employees. It is very diverse—about 43 percent are minority, 57 percent white; 40 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.
When did you learn of the Wetland Warriors?
After Katrina in 2005, our kids at Zachary Elementary (second and third grades) started thinking of ways to prevent coastal erosion. They looked at grasses that prevent coastal erosion and started to grow one type in school. Then they went to Grand Isle to plant them. A year and a half ago, the teachers discovered Disney's Planet Challenge and realized they'd been doing all those things already so they applied.
Did you have any concerns with the project, such as kids traveling to Grand Isle?
Absolutely none. We have a lot of field trips in this district. I believe kids learn through experiences, not just in the classroom.
How does this sort of project help kids learn?
This project does so much more than just teach them about wetlands and ecosystems. It teaches them to become confident in speaking to adults and other students, to learn the technology, write effectively, present their work. That process is as important, if not more important, than the product that is produced.
How did the project/award impact the district?
Disney's Planet Challenge has inspired the entire district. As I visit classrooms, I see outdoor gardens and different things being tried. It has inspired teachers to apply for grants and use hands-on learning in their classrooms.