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Floating Classroom builds oyster cages with members of the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association 

The intense heat did not dampen the enthusiasm of HCS students from Bethel High School, Hampton High School, Kecoughtan High School, or Phoebus High School who are a part of the Floating Classroom this summer. Students and teachers from the Floating Classroom worked with Vic Spain, Brian Ingram, and Kent Eanes, members of the Tidewater Oyster Gardening Association or TOGA, on July 24 and July 27 to build oyster cages. TOGA has been a long-standing partner with the HCS Oyster Restoration Project.

Under the guidance of TOGA mentors and teachers Maria Mouchati and Tirzah Sarro-Jaynes (Phoebus High School and Floating Classroom lead educator); Karen Chang (Kecoughtan); Joe Gurzynski, Adrienne Barker, and Kimberly Coleman (Bethel); and Julius Zama (Hampton), the students worked cooperatively, assisting each other as they learned how to use tools to safely bend and attach sections of mesh wire to build a TOGA-designed oyster float called a Tidal Tumbler. Students learned how to prime and glue end caps on sections of drainage pipes that they then secured to the float. The pipes will allow the cage to float and “tumble with the tides.” The tumbling action ensures that the oysters are moved around in the cage to receive the water flow needed to get food and oxygen. The camaraderie between students was beautiful to behold. As student teams transitioned to a different stage of the cage build, Gurzynski overheard one student telling another, “Step back and I’ll show you how it is done.”

The materials, some of the tools required for the project, and many hours of planning and labor were donated to HCS by TOGA. Over the course of two mornings, the students built enough floats for each high school to have two. The eight oyster floats will be moored in downtown Hampton next to the Floating Classroom. To reciprocate, the students will build 10 tidal tumblers for TOGA that can be sold during their annual float sales. Karen Chang was trained in how to help her students care for the oysters. She also learned ways to incorporate oysters into classroom instruction through Hampton and Virginia history, research and writing, sampling techniques, measurement, and data collection.

In addition to the 4,000 individual spat the students will be raising in the tidal tumblers, each high school received a donation of cages for growing spat on shell from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) as a part of an ongoing relationship the organization has with the Hampton City Schools Oyster Restoration Project. As a part of their oyster restoration program, CBF grows spat on oyster shells recycled from restaurants. Staff and volunteers from the organization educate the public on how to raise spat on shell oysters in local waters. Each high school will have a rectangular cage of spat on shell oysters that they will also monitor and care for, along with the oysters in their tidal tumblers, over the course of the year.   

In the spring, all the oysters will be placed on sanctuary reefs where they will be protected and will contribute to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goal to place 10 billion oysters in the Bay by 2025.  

Tirzah Sarro-Jaynes said, “Transformational experiences and service learning are the foundations of the Floating Classroom program. This collaboration with TOGA builds community. As our students intern with their mentors they are learning and then will use their new skills to give back in service to the organization. In raising oysters our students become caregivers which naturally fosters their compassion and connection to nature, each other, and the community at large.”  

Academy experiences such as these could not happen without the commitment and generosity of community partners such as the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Elizabeth Lake Stewardship Committee that monitors the local reef where oysters will be placed.

Many of the images accompanying this article are courtesy of TOGA member and professional photographer Kent Eanes.