GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — Brooksville Elementary School's little Beanie Baby mascot Bessie and Pine Grove Elementary School's bear learned to move gingerly around swarming marine iguanas, swing widely around resting sea lions and sit quietly with giant tortoises during their recent visit to the Galapagos Islands.
They went with me to the islands during the middle of January, and hopefully their travels will help the students at their schools learn about the fragile, highly protected national park about 600 miles west of Ecuador.
We boarded Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Endeavour, and on our very first day we saw sea lions, Sally lightfoot crabs, sea turtles and a flamingo — pink, not plastic. Throughout the week, we added land and marine iguanas, yellow warblers, green sea turtles and giant Galapagos tortoises to that list.
A highlight for us was a visit to the Unidad Educativa Modelo Tomas de Berlanga, a prekindergarten through 12th-grade school near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. There, we were guided through the grounds by the school's director.
The students studied in open-air classrooms.
The islands are on the equator, and the weather is warm year-round, with cool breezes from the ocean. There are wet and dry seasons. We were there at the very beginning of the wet season and had beautiful weather.
We met 10th-graders Patty Tapia, 15, Nicolas Padilla, 14, and Mateo Saenz, 15, in the art room working on colorful dragons. The students were going to be dismissed soon for their "summer" break at the end of January. They are out of school February, March and April instead of June, July and August.
Patty, who spoke very good English, said she has attended her school "all my life. I think 10 years."
The school is private, and some students attend through scholarships provided by Lindblad Expeditions.
Patty said her school is not the same as other Ecuadorian schools.
"For me, this school is different because we learn in the Galapagos with the nature," she said.
She added that Unidad Educativa Modelo Tomas de Berlanga has an expanded bilingual program, compared with other schools.
They receive about 10 hours of English each week, as opposed to one or two hours a week in other schools.
While we were at the school, a prekindergarten class gave us a paper Flat Stanley (from the Flat Stanley book series by Jeff Brown, about a flat boy who can be mailed and packed into luggage). He is shared by schools and travelers around the world.
Bessie and the Pine Grove bear are like Flat Stanley, in that they travel, too.
The Flat Stanley from Unidad Educativa Modelo Tomas de Berlanga will visit Brooksville and Pine Grove elementary schools before being returned to the Galapagos.
While Patty and her friends worked, Bessie and the Pine Grove bear watched.
Patty knew we would be returning to Brooksville and sent a message:
"Hello to Florida children. Lots of love from Galapagos!"