The Academy at Ocean Reef was officially recognized as the first NOAA Ocean Guardian School in Florida in September, on the second day of the new school year. The Academy earned a letter of recognition and a school banner after completing a number of projects to protect the ocean in 2017-18 as participants in the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration program.
The school faced challenges completing the Ocean Guardian projects – but the process helped Academy students, staff and parents deepen their understanding of how rewarding it is to protect natural resources.
The Academy partnered with Ocean Reef Club Recreation Department and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staff to plan three Ocean Guardian projects: a Coastal Cleanup, Mangrove Restoration and Zero Waste Week.
Students, staff and parents were excited about kayaking along the shoreline for the Coastal Cleanup on September 16, 2017.
Then Hurricane Irma hit.
The Academy was closed for nearly three weeks. When the students returned, a little shell-shocked, a coastal cleanup was out of the question. The shoreline was ravaged by the storm and too dangerous for kayaking.
So Principal Christina Simonds, parents and school custodian Eladio Quintero helped students plant a butterfly garden. The garden was an instant success: within two days, milkweed plants were covered with Monarch butterfly eggs.
And the Academy’s next project – Mangrove Restoration – was even more important now – as some people in Key Largo had illegally cut down mangrove stands after the storm.
So, in November, students and staff collected mangrove pods washed up by storm waters and started a project to help restore mangroves cut down after Hurricane Irma. Each student was given a mangrove pod of his or her own to grow. Students charted mangrove growth and had an eco-art mangrove installation at school for six months, which they proudly told visitors about. The young mangrove seedlings were planted in a Key Largo location where mangroves had been cut down after the storm.
For Zero Waste Week, the school community decreased use of plastics. Students improved on the previous year’s Zero Waste Week challenge and cut the trash each student produced at lunch by 23%. This may have also helped with healthier eating habits as there was increase of 90% in the weight of raw fruit and vegetable matter students composted compared to last year’s Zero Waste Week.
The Academy finally undertook an Ocean Guardian Coastal Cleanup in May, 2018. Students in grades 2-8, six school staff and some parents partnered with Ocean Reef Club Rec. Dept., who provided kayaks and helped remove 340 pieces of debris from the mangroves and the water. Some of the debris had been there since the storm. The debris removed was logged with the NOAA Marine Debris Tracker app.
So, Hurricane Irma felt like a setback to The Academy – but the experience made students, staff and parents realize they had a lot to be thankful for. Everyone was so grateful to return to the Keys and filled with love for our island chain.
The Academy family was also thankful they were able to participate in the Ocean Guardian program. It gave them goals to work towards to help nature recover and keep the Keys Strong.
The Academy is also grateful to Ocean Reef Rec. Dept., NOAA, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staff for their support and looks forward to another constructive year as an Ocean Guardian School.