On his first after-school visit to Peters Creek, Clairton Elementary student Jordon Burnsworth donned wading boots to scoop vertebrates from the water.
The 11-year-old viewed the more interesting samples under a microscope before returning them to the creek.
"We put them back so the fish could feed on them,'' he explained. "It starts with the small fish feeding and works its way to the big fish ... it's all part of the food chain."
Jordon was participating in a lesson that's part of a free program in the Clairton City School District for tutoring and creative activities. The program, called CASTLE -- for Clairton's After-School Teaching and Learning Experience -- kicked off Sept. 13.
On Nov. 7, the fifth-grader and 18 other district students received additional science lessons when they toured the Clairton Municipal Authority's wastewater treatment plant.
"I learned there are microscopic bugs that help dissolve the solids," fifth-grader Laurence Robinson said.
CASTLE emphasizes hands-on activities that reinforce learning in science, technology, engineering, art and math.
The program is funded by a grant provided by the state Department of Education. It is administered by the nonprofit Consortium for Public Education, based in McKeesport.
The program is held from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and attracts up to 175 students in grades 5- 8, who receive tutoring, recreation and dinner.
In addition to firsthand environmental science exploration, students spend time on the Montour Trail, present skits, learn negotiating skills and more.
"I'm very excited about it ... my feeling is that when you have over 100 kids staying three hours after school four nights a week, it must be addressing their interests," Ginny Hunt said.
She is director of curriculum and federal programs for the 800-student district.
The tutoring is conducted by Clairton teachers and paraprofessionals paid by the consortium.
"The kids are reading high-interest books so they can definitely build their own comprehension," Ms. Hunt said.
Activities are planned by the MGR Foundation, Sense of Place Learning, SLB Radio Productions, Hip Hop on L.O.C.K. and others.
The MGR Foundation, or the Marilyn G. Rabb Foundation, is a nonprofit, Lawrenceville-based organization that serves educational communities locally and nationally.
Its Murals program in CASTLE employs drama, visual arts and music to help students explore their personal and communal choices, thereby painting a "mural'' of healthy living.
In its Positive Spin program, aimed at health, wellness, and mentoring, MGR instructors ride with students on the Montour Trail and the Clairton Police Department's bike patrol.
"Our specialty is celebrating the history, heritage, ecology and art of the places we live," Paula Purnell said.
The artist/educator, who has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, is co-owner with biologist and ecologist Margaret Zak of Pittsburgh-based Sense of Place Learning.
"One of my concerns is that, as we become more and more textbook- and standard test-based, one of the things we may not have as much time for is connecting to our community through field trips, guests and more," Ms. Purnell said.
Sense of Place Learning is working with Allegheny College's Creek Connections, which engages students in water-quality sampling in streams and teaches them about the eco-system of streams and their importance.
"We build on that and talk about the first people who lived thousands of years ago in the stream area, the early settlements, the history and land use of the community, Clairton Works and more," Ms. Purnell said.
For 10-year-old Laurence, the natural world is unfolding in ways he never imagined.
"At the creek, I looked at algae under the microscope," he said. "It was super great."education - neigh_south
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.