At a meeting of experts, Mimi school principal John Elliott quietly sat there, feeling self- satisfaction.
The environmental agencies were there: New Plymouth District Council, Conservation Department, Nga Motu Marine Reserves Society and animal control officers discussing protection of blue penguins.
Mr Elliott been invited, too, and recalls the thrust of the spring 2011 meeting.
"They were brainstorming ideas and they came up with every single idea the kids had come up with. Not only that, but the kids had done most of them and at that meeting they were blown away with what we'd achieved."
It was a case of youngsters equalling the adults, of imaginings becoming reality.
Those ideas centre on the need to protect the blue penguin colony at Wai-iti beach, roughly three kilometres from the north Taranaki school. It may be the largest such colony in this part of the region. Up until several years ago, few seemed aware of its existence.
Now Mimi students and teachers are penguin bodyguards. They've taken the birds to heart, protecting them from attack by small dogs and helping ensure nesting birds are in safe surroundings.
There are different facets to Project Pingu, which began about two years ago.
Opunake High school teacher Mark Meyberg kickstarted it all by calling into the school, pointing out the existence of the colony. Mr Meyberg was awarded a Royal Society of New Zealand teaching fellowship in 2011 to study the decline of blue penguin populations. The penguins spend their days at sea and nights on land, burrowing under rocks, logs or buildings.
"It captured the kids' imagination and they really got on board," says Mr Elliott. The school estimates there are 40 penguins at Wai-iti.
The beach is down the road so whipping down and back is feasible at lunchtime. Students began with Mr Meyburg by learning how to find penguin tracks and tell them apart from seagulls' prints.
They learnt that blue penguins are not endangered, but under threat from predators. "So what, big deal. What could we do?", says Mr Elliott.
"We sat down with seniors and we came up with a plan of how we can look after them and be guardians. One of their ideas was to be bodyguards, which sounds silly. But that's effectively what we do."
Penguin signs were created by students and erected in the car park and at the entrance to the beach, warning people of the birds' presence.
Students wrote and produced brochures to alert the local community. Next they called the rural delivery postie and asked if he or she would do a pamphlet drop to local homes. They'd secured sponsorship from Fuji Xerox, which printed 500 brochures for free.
They also made a short DVD to educate locals about the birds and explain the danger of predators to nesting penguins.
The nesting boxes were another component. Periodic detention workers prefabricated the parts and seniors buddied up with juniors to assemble 18 of the timber houses.
"It's a big box with a tunnel. When dogs put their snout in, they [the penguins] can look after themselves because they'll give the dogs a nip," Mr Elliott says. "The ferrets and stoats are the other problem."
Traps deal to those pests.
Rural Women donated funds to buy traps. The $200 the school receives as part of its TRC environmental award will go towards more stainless steel traps.
Empowering youngsters was a relatively novel approach to an environmental issue.
"Mike Tapp from DOC came in, and he said, 'Hey guys, we can tell people this stuff but they don't always listen'. If you kids try, we reckon they'll listen to you," Mr Elliott says.
The seniors chat knowledgeably about their penguin charges.
"We're doing something different to try and help - to make sure a small colony grows because we think it could be bigger," says Ayla Lunn, 9.
"I like not having to be in a classroom and going down to the beach," says Rylee Redshaw, 9.
The irony of the comment is lost on her. Mr Elliott grins because that's part of the project's success - the students are in a "classroom", it's just an outside one.
"It makes us feel proud because we know we have done a good job. Our hard work has paid off," says Caitlin Groves, 10.
The students talk of a whole- school night tour to see and hear the penguins, and play their DVD of the penguins.
Next, the school hopes to make wooden eggs to display at the beach when it's penguin-nesting season. They'll also put leads and toys at Wai-iti to encourage people to keep dogs under control.
Del Redshaw, mother to three Mimi students, likes that her children and their friends are looking after the environment. It's a well-rounded education they're getting. "They're out of the classroom, in the environment. It's building their confidence and teaching them to be caring."
Maire Gill has two Mimi students, with a third due to start. For her, the project's integration into student reading and writing is a bonus.
The penguin work isn't an add- on; it feeds into core curriculum areas. The school has written six standards to measure how well a student is achieving. Each writing standard boasts a penguin character, starting at hatchling and moving up to master emperor.
Mr Elliott isn't a fan of National Standards, introduced to standardise testing in literacy and numeracy, but says one positive spinoff was they forced the school to be more explicit with the students in ways they could understand. There are many targets for each penguin standard, but they're specific. For example, one of the 17 targets for a king penguin is being able to independently make changes to writing to make it more interesting.
Despite all this, news the school would be nominated for a TRC award wasn't greeted with joy. Mr Elliott says he questioned the council, saying he wasn't interested in a token award.
"I challenged TRC to come out and ensure they knew what they were nominating us for."
TRC environmental officer Kevin Archer says he was impressed with the seniors after visiting the school. He describes them as well mannered and justifiably proud of what they have achieved to date.
The school is sticking by its penguins, saying it's a long-term project. And more environmental education is planned. Mimi is one of three north Taranaki schools teaming up with Te Runanga O Ngati Mutunga to enhance its link with both the environment and the local iwi. Riparian planting is planned - perhaps a swamp and gully adjacent to the school will be rejuvenated. Today Mimi joins Moturoa School in a planting day at White Cliffs, and later in the month it visits the long-running propagation unit at Motorola School. It's green light ahead at Mimi, with students leading the charge.
Taranaki Regional Council also announced 2012 environmental awards for Moturoa School, Kahikaketa Kindergarten and Opunake's St Joseph Primary School. All received their awards for environmental education and action.
PROJECT PINGU FACTS
Colony could be largest in Taranaki.
Blue penguins spend days at sea and nights on land . However during nesting time - June to August - they're on land for longer.
During moulting time - between February and April - they also come ashore.
School has named some penguins because they return to same burrow each night.
Students produced a pamphlet, DVD, signs and nesting boxes.
Traps set for predators such as stoats, rats and dogs.
Students' efforts focused on dogs - small ones running free can grab and kill penguins.
Dog owners encouraged to walk dogs by shoreline.
This month Mimi one of four schools/pre-schools given a 2012 TRC environmental award.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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