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"Parknership': Outdoors as classroom

Honeymoon Island State Park has long been an outdoor classroom for students in Patty Boylan's marine biology classes at Countryside High School.

But next year, students will be doing more than looking and listening.

They will be rolling up their sleeves to plant trees and shrubs, build trail signs, and help with other park projects.

Countryside High School is the first Pinellas County school to be paired with a park under a new state program dubbed "Parknership."

The program gives students a way to learn about the environment by doing hands-on projects at state parks. For the parks, the students are extra help for projects that otherwise may be bumped off the priority list.

"It's a terrific opportunity for everybody," said Alexandra Weiss, programs coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources in Tallahassee. "It's a way of providing an outdoor setting for environmental education for students.

"And this way, we are able to do some programs and projects that we might not otherwise be able to do."

Just what the Countryside students will be doing isn't clear. Boylan plans to meet with park manager Willie Cutts during the summer to complete plans. But a preliminary meeting produced some promising ideas.

One possibility is for the students to develop permanent signs for the park's nature trail to explain the vegetation and animal life seen along the way.

Boylan said that when she is taking classes to the park now, she goes the night before to erect more than 20 temporary signs.

The project would help students from other schools, too.

"Other schools could bring their classes out to the park and they would have a self-guided nature trail," Boylan said.

The Countryside students also might develop pamphlets for the trail either aimed at different grade levels or to help teachers explain the park's natural world to their students.

"I think it's kind of exciting to get students involved," said Cutts, the park manager. "If it's handled right, I think we could both get some benefit out of it."

Students may be able to work on projects for the park while at school, Cutts said. They may revive a nursery that was once used at the school and grow native plants that they could transplant to Honeymoon Island.

"There's a large section of this park that needs revegetation with native species," Cutts said.

The statewide Parknership program started during the past school year with seven schools, including elementary, middle and high school. Six more, including Countryside High School, have been added for the coming school year.

During the past school year, students planned and mapped new trails, removed debris and exotic vegetation, learned how to read tracks and spot sea turtle nests, created products for park gift shops, planted native species and made videotapes.

Students interested in environmental careers are particularly attracted to the program, but the Parknership experience also could spark a new interest.

"You don't really know what's out there until someone tells you about it or takes you there," Weiss said.

"It gives the state park staff a chance to get out our story _ what the Florida Park Service is all about."