On a bright sunny spring day, 150 yeshiva and public school second-graders came together on the banks of the Raritan River in Highland Park to build community and get an up-close look at the ecosystem they had been studying.
The May 1 event at Donaldson Park was the first-ever collaboration between the Rabbi Raymon Pesach Yeshiva in Edison and the Bartle Elementary School in Highland Park.
Accompanied by teachers, administrators, and parents, youngsters went on a scavenger hunt for invasive species, sat along the river drawing pictures, and observed the landscape.
Organizers from both schools are already discussing ways to expand the collaboration next year.
The youngsters had been taught in their classrooms about the river and its surroundings by Bill Schultz, founder of the Raritan Riverkeeper environmental group.
Ilana Bohm, RPRY guidance counselor and program co-coordinator, said students there learned about efforts to save seals and whales that winter in the Raritan Bay around Perth Amboy.
“We’ve learned all about the environment, and to partner with a neighboring school is a nice thing to do,” she said.
A group of boys digging with sticks for earthworms — a non-native species introduced from Europe, they learned — suddenly stood up and shrieked when they uncovered an ant hill.
Others walked through the grass looking for the elusive red clover, while noting the park had an extraordinary amount of dandelions.
“I never got this close to the water to see how beautiful it is,” said Bartle student Zaniya Smith as she sat by the banks drawing the river and its surroundings.
“I learned there are seashells by the water,” said classmate Iris Ou, holding out a handful of shells.
RPRY student Sarah Menashe said she learned that “there is a big habitat in the whole world and there is a big habitat of animals in the Raritan River.”
Her classmate Leia Dean said she especially liked learning about the crabs that live in the river.
“We have found that a lot of children are protected from the river for a variety of reasons,” said Shultz. “Their parents don’t want them to play by the river because they’re afraid they’ll fall in. We’re trying to encourage people to make use of the river for fishing, paddle-boating, and kayaking. We’ve found a lot of people don’t recognize what a resource they have right in their backyards. We want to make these people advocates for the river.”
The idea for the program came from Highland Park councilman and RPRY board of education member Josh Fine. He expressed interest to former Mayor Stephen Nolan in improving environmental education and strengthening relationships among the borough’s multi-ethnic residents. Nolan suggested a joint initiative between the two schools.
Last summer Fine began contacting school administrators, municipal officials, and board of education members. Schultz met with school and municipal officials in December.
Program co-coordinator Erin Crowley, a second-grade teacher at Bartle, said many of the youngsters already knew each other as neighbors. Her school saw the collaboration as a “no-brainer” and an opportunity to bring everyone together.
“The kids in my classroom were so excited,” she said. “They were all like, ‘Yeah, more second-graders, more friends.’”
As the program was concluding, Bartle principal Anthony Benjamin said he intended the explore the possibility of more joint programming.