These Tacoma 7th-graders are learning about the ocean from the seats of their kayaks

By the time the first bell rings at Jason Lee Middle School every morning, seventh grader Lamin Jatta has already spent an hour in class — one that requires him to wear a life vest and hold a paddle.

Lamin, 12, is part of the school’s first ecokayaking class, a program that combines fitness and education to improve student achievement.

“I’ve learned how to paddle, turn and tip over,” Lamin said. The latter was done in a pool at Stadium High School during the first week of training in September.

“It was kind of scary,” Lamin said. “We put the spray skirts on, and we had to rip them off and get out of our boat.”

The free program is a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools, Metro Parks Tacoma and the Foss Waterway Seaport. It was the brainchild of Jason Lee principal Christine Brandt.

The nine-week class is part of the school’s Thrive program, which maintains that morning exercise makes young minds more attentive and conducive to learning.

The partnership, Brandt said, makes the program affordable and exposes kids to an environment they could never experience on campus.

“We’ve just taken our science class and moved it to Foss Waterway,” she said. “It’s that real life science and learning.”

On a cool morning last week, the water was glassy smooth as half of the 18 kids shoved off from the dock. Soon they were poking around underneath the pilings.

“This is the perfect weather to go kayaking,” Raquel Riles, 12, said. “It’s not too hot or too cold.”

A thick fog was blanketing parts of the water, activating a fog horn at Browns Point. Metro Parks kayak instructor Kyle Clogston took the opportunity to teach some weather knowledge.

“Is it usually windy when it’s foggy?” he asked his group as they took water (53.3 F) and air (48.8 F) temperatures.

“No,” they answered. In the distance, a kingfisher chimed in.

Clogston and fellow instructor Kyle Bradshaw taught the kids how to perform the underwater exit from their kayaks, what some call the Eskimo roll.

“The goal is always being prepared for the worst,” Clogston said.

More than kayaking, the kids are learning the ways of the sea and a little bit about the city they live in.

“They didn’t understand that the water goes up and down here,” Clogston said. “Some kids don’t have any experience on the water.”

“It’s been pretty cool to show them some of our landmarks here in Tacoma,” Bradshaw said. “A lot of them have just never had that view of the city (from the water) before.”

Most of the time, the classes are exploring the Foss Waterway in their kayaks. The previous day, the kids had been busy taking water samples from various depths.

After the hour-long kayak session finished, the students hung up their gear and took positions behind two rows of microscopes in a classroom inside the Seaport. The day’s lesson was to identify marine phytoplankton and zooplankton.

The first task was getting the kids not to be over zealous with their water samples.

“Do not put too much water on your plate,” instructor Susan Cochran said. “You do not want the zooplankton to escape before you look at them.”

“Oh my gosh, he’s jumping around,” Gunnar Ray, 13, said as he tried to keep track of a microscopic creature. “I need to figure out what you are.”

Later, a round diatom came into view. Gunnar declared it to be a Coscinodiscus centralis.

“This is a way to introduce to them that there’s a lot of stuff they can’t see in the ocean,” Cochran said. “It directly affects the atmosphere.”

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She and the other instructors are teaching the micro and the macro.

“This is a recreational place, this is a shipping place,” Cochran said. “I can do wonderful things with my family using this resource but we have to take care of it. The most minute details will tell you why you need to take care of it.”

On the water, kids learn paddle strokes and maneuvering their boats as well rules of the road around larger vessels.

“Part of our challenge is keeping the group together and teaching them while on the water,” Bradshaw said. “It’s been a lot of fun seeing them become comfortable on their boats.”

It took the kids 40 minutes to load their boats at the beginning of the school year. That’s down now to eight minutes, Clogston said.

Kids have to be motivated to sign up for the class. The school day is longer, and parents have to be involved, instructors said.

“We are on the bus rolling at 7:45 in the morning,” Brandt said. “We tell the kids, you’re going to work out every day which sometimes includes getting super soaky wet.”

Some kids want to get fit, others say the program helps their attention deficit disorder, Brandt said. Others just miss physical education classes.

The nine-week program becomes one focused on hiking and geocaching in the winter. In the spring, a new group takes to the water.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor