“I’ve never studied harder for anything in my life,” Colton Lee said, as he recalled the long hours he spent preparing to pass his scuba diving certification two years ago. “I had a week to read 300 pages. I studied during lunch, and after school I disappeared into my room—even eating dinner in bed—so I could study some more.”
Lee said the experience was nerve-wracking at first. “Crap,” he said to himself. “What if I run out of air and I’m in 65 feet of water. I could die! I’d better learn this stuff.”
A seventh-grader at Polaris Expeditionary Learning School in Fort Collins at the time, Lee participated in the first trip that teacher Matt Strand led to Key Largo, Florida, with a group of 20 Polaris students, to participate in the restoration of a coral reef threatened with extinction. In the last 30 years, 97 percent of the staghorn coral, a keystone element in maintaining the reef, has disappeared. In response, the Coral Restoration Foundation, largest offshore coral nursery in the world, is working to monitor, maintain and rejuvenate the coral by actually transplanting pieces of coral into the live rock bed where it can grow. Each newly planted piece of coral is tagged so that its progress can be monitored. Most of the groups who come to assist in the work are college students, making those from Polaris unique.
It all began when Strand received a grant from Fund for Teachers to design a learning experience. He chose to earn his scuba diving certification and participate in the Coral Restoration Foundation’s project. “It was such an amazing experience for me that I decided to bring it back to the Polaris lab.” With the help of the Poudre School District and the Colorado Scuba Diving Academy, Strand made the first trip happen in 2015.
Now a ninth-grader, Lee is looking forward to a second trip to the site, where he will be able to revisit some of the coral he nurtured and learn whether or not it is growing and surviving. Four of his schoolmates who were on the first trip are returning as well.
Preparation for the expedition is a year-long project for the 20 students who will be going on May 20. In addition to studying for their scuba certification, they all travelled to the 65-foot-deep Homestead Crater in Utah, the closest place deep enough for their final test. And then there was the matter of fundraising for the trip. Each student was charged with raising $1,500. They did it in all sorts of ways, from raking leaves, doing chores around their homes, and making bead and wire rings to sell, to getting part-time jobs. Eighth-grader Donavan Segelhorst’s family donated all proceeds from their Halloween haunted house. A fundraiser was held at Chipper’s Lanes in Fort Collins, and the students also sponsored a dance. Money was raised through a crowdfunding site as well.
Grace Meyer, a seventh-grader who commutes to Polaris from Drake in Big Thompson Canyon, has earned her certification and will join the trip. She has been a Polaris student since third grade. Eleventh-grader Liviya Harmon of LaPorte has spent her entire academic life at Polaris and hopes to incorporate her interest in photography with her concern for the health of the ocean. A lover of sharks for as long as she can remember, she’d like people to know that sharks are not just killing machines, and she hopes to see at least one when she is in Florida. Segelhorst has some experience with diving in Hawaii and knows something of the wonder of an underwater experience. Lee has always been fascinated with the ocean and is happy to be returning to see the results of his work two years ago.
How are these students able to devote this much time and effort to an “out-of-school” project? How are they able to maintain a high level of academic learning at the same time?
Polaris Expeditionary Learning School was founded as a charter school in 2001—the year that Strand came to town to be part of that effort. First called Pioneer School, in 2007 the school joined Poudre School District as a 100 percent school of choice, meaning that it is not a feeder school for a specific neighborhood. Today it has about 400 students, kindergarten through twelfth grade. Strand, who earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership along the way, has had experience founding the original school and later in integrating it into the Poudre School District. Today, the school has a waiting list.
Twelve of the 24 teachers at the school have a master’s degree or above, and they average seven years’ teaching experience. The school uses the national education reform model of experiential learning. Among its principles are rigorous academic course work, high quality adventure experiences, character development and opportunities to display leadership. The theory is that students learn more from experiencing the world around them than from textbook learning. The school promotes “in-depth study of a compelling topic over an extended period of time.”
Students are encouraged to take personal responsibility for their learning and interact with experts working in their field of interest. The school’s motto is: “We Are Crew, Not Passengers.”
The coral reef restoration project seems a perfect fit, providing students with a real-world challenge with a clearly defined purpose.
This spring’s participants will have a chance to make four dives, each lasting about 50 minutes. They will carefully transplant about 100 pieces of coral each. And they will come home with new knowledge and the understanding that, through their service, they have made a very real contribution to the welfare of the planet.
“In addition to realizing that they have learned about environmental science, specifically marine biology, my hope is that the experience will contribute to the likelihood of getting into the college of their choice, if they decide to go, and that they will have become leaders of their own learning,” Strand said.