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Essrig Elementary has a worldly air

Passers-by might find it odd seeing children for the past month circling the parking lot at Essrig Elementary. But they're not walking as punishment. The students are walking to Australia.

Figuratively, of course.

This year, students and teachers will participate in "Around the World in 184 Days," a program unique to Essrig that will take the school on an imaginary trip around the globe.

First stop is Syndey. To get there, the student body must accumulate the 9,261 miles it takes to travel from Tampa to the Australian city. Along the way, teachers will educate students about Australia's geography, culture and history.

In addition to walking, students can read books selected from the county's Accelerated Reader Program. After completing the book, students will take a quiz. If they pass, they earn miles toward the school's next destination. Those mileage awards fluctuate, depending on the book's level of difficulty.

The school will celebrate its arrival in Syndey on Friday morning to coincide with Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in Australia. Students will carry a "torch" through the parking lot, participate in a procession complete with foreign flags and class-made banners, and march to patriotic tunes.

From Syndey, the students will travel 5,547 miles to Beijing. Other destinations this year include Rome; Khartoum, Sudan; Antarctica; and Lima, Peru. Arrival at each continent will be marked with a schoolwide celebration. Essrig's final return from Peru to Tampa is scheduled for May 25, the last day of school. Altogether, the school will have traveled 38,469 miles in 184 days, the same number of days in the school year.

Essrig parent Sharla Gentile thinks the program is an exceptional technique to get children interested in reading. The program "adds excitement to reading," she said, because the children "are all working together as a whole to work toward a goal."

Gentile says her 7-year-old daughter, Ashlyn, is already looking forward to the next destination. "She's absolutely fascinated with China."