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‘Nature is Our Classroom'

A local school is developing the next generation of environmental stewards

One of Pelican Island Elementary’s teachers created a mural for the sensory garden.

One of Pelican Island Elementary’s teachers created a mural for the sensory garden.

Students at Pelican Island Elementary cannot avoid ecology. For starters, they happen to be located in a scrub jay habitat, part of a scrub pine forest. Skinks scuttle through the sandy ridge, the remains of ancient dunes now covered with stunted oaks, saw palmetto, dog apple and wildflowers such as pennyroyal, a member of the mint family, and blazing star, which blooms in late summer and early fall.

The real star of the habitat is the scrub jay, a streamlined bird with a long bill and tail, white throat and blue collar, known for cooperative breeding, in which the offspring from the previous brood of a mated couple stick around to help with defending the nesting site and feeding younger hatchlings. While the scrub jays’ numbers have declined in recent years due to habitat loss, they are protected at Pelican Island Elementary both by law and by their young stewards, many still with their baby teeth, who carry folding chairs so they can sit on the trails and observe the wildlife through the colorful binoculars they have made themselves from toilet paper rolls. Out in the scrub or anywhere else on campus, students practice “Earth manners,” essentially, “Look at it, learn from it, and leave it alone.” 

Before we delve further into the culture at Pelican Island Elementary, a bit of history is in order.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture once described Pelican Island, the first in a series of islands in the narrows of the Indian River Lagoon, as “little more than a mud flat with only a few black mangroves, one or two cabbage palms and large patches of grass.” What the surveyor failed to note was that the “mud flat” was also a major rookery for egrets and one of the last rookeries for the brown pelican on the east coast of Florida.