A National City nonprofit that has spent the past decade providing locally based science curriculum to elementary students is seeking to expand its footprint in the classroom by opening to the general public its eco tours around the South Bay and beyond.
"We want to open up our programs to the public, but with our grant money focused on the National City School District, we don't have the funding to offer them at no cost," says Frances Kinney, founder and executive director of Ocean Connectors. "We're also looking to offset some of the cost of offering our free program to students — all of the proceeds from the eco tours will allow the low-income children that we work with to go on field trips."
Kinney's group, operating since 2007, currently provides eight of National City's ten elementary schools with three years' supplementary science curriculum, highlighted by field trips offered to students once a year from fourth through sixth grade at no cost to the district or parents.
"Each grade focuses on a different animal — fourth-graders study sea turtles, fifth-graders get whales, sixth grade is about birds. Every year they take a field trip and participate in a knowledge exchange, a direct peer-to-peer dialogue with students in Mexico," Kinney continues. "Every class gets two presentations from a guest speaker each year in addition to the field trip, so we'll see the students three times a year for three years. In addition to that, we have a full bilingual marine-science curriculum that we provide free to every class."
Over the course of the program, students are taken aboard whale-watching vessels, visit the Living Coast Discovery Center, and participate in a nature walk/bay cleanup. Kinney says for many, the trips represent some of the students' first exposure to the coast, despite the farthest-inland boundaries of National City lying less than four miles from San Diego's bayfront.
"I think it's assumed that kids in San Diego have access to and go to the beach all the time, but that's just not true."
The goal of Ocean Connectors isn't just to provide exposure to the local environment, but to promote lifelong environmental stewardship among youth who might not otherwise be inspired by textbooks alone.
"The idea is to have continuous environmental education for three years," Kinney continues. "So each set of curriculum focuses on one aspect of conservation, whether it's the 'three r's' of reduce, reuse, recycle or choosing to eat sustainable seafood."
To date, the group's work has been sponsored by grants from U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the Port of San Diego, and sponsorships from local businesses. By offering the fee-based eco tours structured around the three wildlife themes offered to students, Ocean Connectors hopes to raise enough to expand their program to include all ten elementary schools in National City.
"Studies have shown that by age ten, kids have formed their core values — if you get kids outside and excited about nature around that time then they'll care about it for life."