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Students dive into salmon study

COOS BAY, Ore. – This past school year Jesse Clark, 16, often had trouble getting out of bed for school – but never on Tuesdays.

That’s when he and five other boys from the Harding Learning Center, an alternative public school in the Coos Bay School District, hit the area’s waterways, braving muck and water to help Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel raise fish.

That teenage boys should enjoy splashing around in rivers and catching fish shouldn’t come as a surprise. But those around Jesse and his peers on the Harding Learning Center Salmon Study Team have been frankly and pleasantly surprised at how completely they’ve bought in to the program.

“Jesse, I can’t motivate him at all until Tuesday, fish day. Then he’s up at the crack of dawn,” said Jesse’s mother, Kassie Gerard. “The changes in these kids from the beginning of the year have been phenomenal.”

Under the tutelage of Harding teacher Gary Wellbaum, the six kids who make up the Harding Learning Center Salmon Study Team have taken part in every step of the fish-growing process, from spawning to release.

Wellbaum hatched the idea as a way to give his students – most of whom came to Harding because the public school model wasn’t working for them – something to be a part of. Aside from the six core members of the team, four others have been heavily involved, and dozens of students from Harding have voluntarily taken part in the program when more hands were needed.

“You’ve got to find something that will interest them and is important to the community. We thought, since (fishing) is what the area has, this is what we’d do,” Wellbaum said. “It’s about being responsible to the community.”

The results have been above and beyond expectations.

Jesse’s a good example. Last year at Marshfield High School, Gerard said, Jesse had a 30 percent attendance rate.

“He hated it,” she said.

In his last trimester at Harding, Jesse was absent perhaps a day or two. Some of that may have to do with the Harding model overall, which emphasizes individual choice and personal attention. But ask the kids what they like the most, and it’s the hands-on messy experience of the Salmon Study Team. “You get to see how it works. The fun part about it is you get to play with the fish,” Jesse said.

And somewhere in the process, Jesse actually learned how the entire fish hatchery process works. He and his classmates have done it all, from plunging into water to capture fish for their eggs to fertilization and incubation, to growth and feeding to, finally, releasing the chinook salmon on their long journey out into the ocean – which occurred recently at an end-of-the-year party at Noble Creek Hatchery.

“I like being out and doing stuff hands-on,” said Jesse’s classmate, 17-year-old Josh Courtain.

Josh’s parents have noticed changes in him, as well. He’s not so shy anymore, they say, and his confidence level is through the roof.

“At the beginning of the year, if we’d come out here he would have stood in the back in the parking lot and watched,” said Josh’s father, David Courtain. “Now, he went right up and started helping.”

“His attitude is a complete 180 from last year,” added Josh’s mother, Sandy Courtain.

“You don’t get this kind of information or fun trying to learn about this stuff in school,” said 15-year-old James Hardman, another member of the team.

The benefits of the Salmon Study Team extend beyond its members. Over the past year the Harding salmon team helped the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife raise about 750,000 chinook salmon. They, like other school groups, are a source of labor on which the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife relies. Simply doing ventral fin clipping for 750,000 fish is an immense task.

“For ODFW to do that on our own would take months,” said Assistant District Fish Biologist Gary Vonderohe. “And they’re really interested in what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. They come up with ideas about how we can manage fish.”

This was what Wellbaum had in mind when he started the Salmon Study Team, but even he’s been taken aback by the depth to which his students have delved into the process.

At an April 29 Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife meeting at the North Bend Public Library to discuss the possibility of increased in-basin fall chinook angling restrictions, Wellbaum, along with Jesse and Tucker Bayless of the team, presented a comprehensive list of proposals for protecting wild fish populations. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel said the suggestions were as good as any they’d seen. In fact, the students’ proposals – among them the closure of upper reaches of streams where wild fish spawn and bag limits – mirrored ideas being floated by anglers and fish biologists.

While students were researching dead fish on the Elk River, they pointed out some mistakes in Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife numbers and helped get them corrected, Wellbaum said.

“The kids are getting these theories, then they’re going out and talking to the biologists,” Wellbaum said. “They are engaged at that level, which is better than we’d hoped.”

The Harding kids’ involvement in the hatchery process prompted members of the Noble Creek Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program volunteer group to change their bylaws to allow people under the age of 18 to join, so they could make the six core members of the Salmon Study Team honorary members.

For most of those six – Jesse, Josh, James, Tucker Bayless, Tucker Sherman and Greg O’Fallon – these kinds of achievements were unimaginable 12 months ago. Now, it’s a different story.

Clark said he’d like to go to college, maybe to study marine biology. He and Bayless just signed up for the Northwest Youth Corps – the youth version of the Civilian Conservation Corps – which is a six-week wilderness work program that involves blazing trails, camping out and severing all ties to electronics – no iPods or video games allowed.

Josh volunteered to continue working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife through the summer, even though school’s out.

“Doing this with the fish has shown them that they can do something that pertains to a career,” said David Courtain.

“Yeah, and they’re making the right decisions now, rather than going down the wrong path,” added Gerard. “They have a future that we, as parents, didn’t think they had last year.”