SPRINGS SCHOOL Teachers — and soon, many students — get crash course on C.R. gem

Fifty school district staff members toured Three Sisters Springs on Friday, guided by refuge volunteers hoping the teachers in attendance can soon treat their students to the same experience.

K-5 teachers and district staff visited the popular destination to learn more about ecosystem diversity as part of the Nature of Learning pilot program provided by the Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

“It’s a cool experience. We love doing this program,” said Friends volunteer PR coordinator Bonnie Rybak. “Our main goals are environmental awareness and appreciation, teaching the students and teachers to be stewards of this land and to be ambassadors for our environment.”

Educators visited three stations, each highlighting the diversity of the refuge.

“One group will stay in the pavilion and learn about manatees, their anatomy, their habits, their socialization, their possible extinction, et cetera. Another group is going to be going to the boardwalk, and they’re going to be learning about the ecosystem of the springs, how it relates to manatees, the watershed, et cetera. The third group is going to take a hike to the reclaimed wetlands, they border the entrance of Three Sister’s Springs, and they’ll learn why these wetlands are reclaimed,” Rybak said. “These three groups will have concurrent classes. Everyone will have one of those stations in the course of the morning.”

The Friends tested their pilot program sessions for the first time in April on one CRPS fifth-grade class. The group hopes to make the learning sessions available to all district fifth-graders, but started with Crystal River Primary due to its proximity to the refuge.

“We’re starting small. We want to do one more pilot of Crystal River fifth-graders, and then next school year we hope to do them all. I think they’ve got eight — it’s a huge number of classes, and it will be one at a time. We want to grow the program, and eventually we want to take it to all the schools in Citrus County,” Rybak said.

The Three Sister’s Springs program arose from successfully bringing fourth- and fifth-grade students to the Homosassa salt marsh trails.

“We started a program in Homosassa first at a very little-known part of the refuge called the salt marsh trails. We take all of the fourth- and fifth-graders from Homosassa one class at a time, and we bring them over there. We do a similar program with three stations,” Rybak said.

After the interactive site visits, schools saw increased testing scores. Rybak is anticipating the same trend with the spring’s sessions.

“Our dream is to do it for all the fifth-grades because they do fifth-grade science standardized testing. If we can tie in the hands-on that we do here in these lessons, with these standards, we know their standards are going to be raised,” she said.

All programs have been provided to district students through a grant and Friends fundraising efforts.

“Initially we had gotten a federal grant to start everything, and that was over six years ago. From that point on all the materials are paid by our fundraising. We have a nature store at the refuge where we sell T-shirts. When we have an open house like the Manatee Festival weekend, we’ll have a nature store under a tent. The money that we make from that goes to supporting this program,” Rybak said.

TOURS AND MORE

* To find out more about the Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, visit friendsofcrystalriver.org.

* On Jan. 14 and 15, the Friends will offer free tours of the springs during the Manatee Festival.

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