Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Turtles

Susie Spikol, from the Harris Center, talks turtles with 3rd grade students at Pierce Elementary School.

Roll out the red carpet for Pierce Elementary School of Bennington, New Hampshire. Students from Jennifer Sutton’s third-grade class were featured in an episode of New Hampshire PBS’ “Window to the Wild.”

The episode highlighted a project the third-grade students have been working on in collaboration with the Harris Center for Conservation Education.

The Harris Center was looking for projects for kids that could help them connect with wildlife. They read about head-starting turtles through a Zoo New England project called H.A.T.C.H. Using the protocols set out by Zoo New England together with the New Hampshire Fish and Game non-game department and the Turtle Rescue League, they have been able to give baby turtles a better chance at surviving and have been able to educate children on the ecology and conservation of turtles and other reptiles.

The project started in September 2021 when Susie Spikol, Harris Center naturalist, suggested that Sutton’s class house and raise four turtles until May, when they could be released into the wild.

The Pierce School is not the only school head-starting. Spikol is working with Peterborough Elementary School, Jaffrey Grade School, Wells School and Conval High School.

Baby turtles are vulnerable to lots of predation, and very few make it to adulthood. There are programs like this set in place in states such as Massachusetts that have species of turtles that are endangered or imperiled. But, since New Hampshire’s turtles are less imperiled, they did not have any programs in place. Spikol contacted New Hampshire Fish and Game to talk about the idea of piloting a program with something common like a painted turtle. The program helps students see how the process goes so that way if there is a time they would need this, they would have a program already in place.

“It’s really been a win-win situation in terms of what we were hoping to see. With schools getting invested in helping turtles and becoming aware of ways they could be helping wild turtles,” says Spikol.

They have plans to continue with the project next year because of its success so far.

Students in Sutton’s class have been raising four painted turtles since they were the size of a quarter. They are housed in the third-grade classroom, but it has become a school-wide effort. The school even worked together to name the turtles: Penny, Myrtle, Rocky and Flash.

“What my students are doing is making sure the turtles are cared for and get as much growth as they can before being returned into the wild,” says Sutton.

The students are responsible for feeding, cleaning up after, observing and collecting data weekly, such as the weight and size of the turtles.

“What’s really been great about the turtles is that they have brought our school together. We have students who will come in and read to the turtles. Or, if they are having a hard time emotionally or socially, they can earn time so they can spend that time with the turtles.” Sutton says.

The turtles have been involved in all aspects of learning in the classroom.

“It’s been a whole year of how do we integrate turtles into everything we learn. The students have put together slideshows, done research, worked with technology, written poems; there’s even been a math component,” Sutton says. “It’s all been quite phenomenal!”

The students have known from the beginning that the turtles are not pets.

“They know and understand that this is to better the turtle population and to really head-start these turtles to give them a better chance at survival in the wild,” Sutton says.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity for the kids,” notes Principal Beth Gibney, “It really brings real-world learning to the students.”

In October of last year, PBS interviewed the children about the project. The day the episode aired, the school had a red carpet event for the children, and they were presented with Turtle Tender Awards before they went home to watch the episode with their families. The next day they all watched it in class together. The episode aired on Wednesday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m., on NHPBS; it is available online at nhpbs.org.

The turtles will be released at a confidential location at the end of May or early June, which Sutton says will be “bittersweet.” 

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