Christina Swosinski fell into turtle-watching. The sandy beaches of the barrier islands in the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fla., are a perfect habitat for nesting sea turtles, so when co-worker and recent Florida transplant Susan Camp suggested that the two of them volunteer to walk the beaches looking for sea turtle nests, she agreed.
It was fun, which is what led them to think they could get kids out to the island and run a service learning program. Swosinski and Camp work for Knowledge Learning Corporation, a childcare provider with programs in 24 states, and so the germ of the idea was nurtured in the sands of Anna Maria Island and hatched into a successful, award-winning afterschool and summer camp program. "It was one of those chances you take," says Swosinski, "where it turns out really well."
The 17% solution: The program, according to Roger Dearing, superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, is part of what he calls "The 17 percent solution." "We only have them for six hours a day," he says. "If you figure there are 365 days in a year and 24 hours in a day, that six hours is about 17 percent of a child's life. We have to stretch learning beyond that 17 percent."
Work hard, have fun: Good service learning programs are "structured organized educational endeavors that fortify and enhance what is being learned in class." Turtle Watch has all that, plus sand, sun, water and wildlife. It's all part of Dearing's Work Hard, Have Fun philosophy. As Swonsinki acknowledges, older elementary-age students "are bored, they don't want to go to afterschool" with the little kids. "We had to do something to get them involved and wanting to come."
Stealth learning: The original plan had the kids working in the Turtle Watch store, talking to customers and doing everything that a shopkeeper does. "It was fun--they didn't even know they were learning," says Swosinski, when they calculated accounts, made change, or explained the purpose of the Turtle Watch organization to a visitor.
More than just turtles: There's an excitement to hands-on programs like Turtle Watch; the kids never get bored with it. This year, the students designed the Turtle Watch Web site and Swosinski could barely keep up with the flow of ideas and the speed with which they expected things to happen. "Fourth-grade girls," she says, with a loving, exasperated note in her voice. "I couldn't move fast enough for them. I would just hand them my laptop and let them go."
Community focus: When Superintendent Dearing learned that Manatee County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase over 15 years to help generate the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to finance school renovations and new school buildings, he was not surprised. "This community expects a lot from their educational institutions but they also support us tremendously," he says.
Giving back: That connection to the community is part of what Dearing hopes to foster in his students. "You have to give back to the community and to the environment if you expect quality of life to improve." The families of students involved in Turtle Watch often bring the kids in to volunteer even after they've left the program.
Reading is job one: With a whopping 32 percent of students not reading at grade level, Florida is making strides to emphasize the importance of reading and comprehension. In Manatee County, Dearing's message has been amended to reflect that need: Work Hard, Have Fun, Make Reading Mission One. "It is everybody's job to address reading," he says. "We have to work to improve comprehension whether it's in English class or science class or wherever."
Elizabeth Crane is a contributing editor.