The downtown water taxi barely inched away from Friendship Park, when the heads of about 40 gleeful fifth-graders dart back and forth, trying to catch a glimpse of anything in the murky river below.

 

Teacher Nyeika Thorne chided them, “I know we’re excited we’re on the boat, but it’s time to pay attention.”

For many of the students from Carter G. Woodson Elementary — where nearly 80 percent of students are considered poor — Monday’s hour and a half tour was a first.

Most aboard had never been this up close to the St. Johns River before in their life, including 11-year-old Jerome Davis and his mother Latoya Anderson.

“It’s very exciting to be able to spend time with him here,” Anderson said.

Slideshow: More photos from students' ride on the St. Johns

Jerome, who is considering becoming a veterinarian one day, said he was looking forward to spotting dolphins and other aquatic life during the excursion. He said the closest he’d ever been to the river before that morning was the Jacksonville Landing.

“We just went out to eat and stuff on the Landing,” he said.

Jerome and his class are the first to board the boat as part of a new federally and locally-funded initiative to provide more access to low-income classrooms throughout the district to hands-on lessons about the river’s ecosystem.

Duval County Public Schools partnered with environmental advocacy group the St. Johns Riverkeeper and CSX give about 4,500 students from the district’s 69 poor elementary schools a front row seat to aquatic life in the river.

“This opportunity is a once in a lifetime experience for our fifth-graders to be able to get out on the river and experience first-hand the ecosystem and learn about our treasured resource,” said district Director of Arts Jeffrey Smith.

Throughout the fall and spring, students elementary school will tour the river with members of the Riverkeeper, as part of the district’s STEAM –science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—curriculum.

“We’ll be working on water chemistry…These are going to participate in some dolphin and manatee counts and we’re going to be looking at the watershed as a whole trying to find a school and different landmarks,” said Riverkeeper Education Director Jennie Busey, who led Monday’s tour.

The undertaking which will involve approximately 1,700 field trips over the year is estimated to cost upwards of $70,000, according to the Riverkeeper. About $30,000 of the cost will be covered by federal money, while the remaining $40,000 will be covered by grants from CSX and the Riverkeeper.

For the group, the mission is two-fold: Provide a hands-on access to the river to children who may not otherwise get it and cultivate a new generation of environmentally-conscious citizens to protect it.

“The more we can expose our kids…the better it is for our community,” said State Sen. Audrey Gibson, who was on hand during the launch of the program Monday morning.

Many students who will take part in the program are from Gibson’s district in Northwest and Westside of Jacksonville.

“The better they understand, as they grow up and stay in Jacksonville, how important the river is,” Gibson said. “And they translate that to their family as well.”

Rhema Thompson: (904) 359-4693