The staff at Pocatello Community Charter School has always regarded the Portneuf River as a natural classroom for teaching lessons in water quality, aquatic life and ecology.
Therefore, they considered it fitting to make the river, which flows in sight of the school grounds, the focal point of ongoing celebrations commemorating PCCS’s 20th anniversary.
On Tuesday, about 150 PCCS students in grades five through eight floated a short stretch of the river near their school, using plastic and inflatable watercraft. Other PCCS students spent part of the day taking water samples for testing from a Portneuf tributary, City Creek.
Pocatello’s first charter school hosted an assembly Wednesday morning to celebrate two decades of teaching local students through a unique model known as expeditionary learning, which emphasizes teamwork, real-world experiences and nature.
In addition to providing students a fun break from their normal routine, the float trip advanced the goals of the city’s Portneuf River Vision, which was launched in 2016 to restore the Portneuf River corridor and revitalize the environmental, recreational and economic opportunities the water body supports.
Hannah Sanger, manager of the city’s Science and Environmental Division, organized a July celebration called Portneuf Poky Paddle, which drew more than 1,000 people to float the same stretch of river.
About two weeks ago, Sanger said a large group of volunteers — with support from several companies, organizations and governmental entities — sawed logs and removed debris from another stretch further downstream, above Batiste Road.
Sanger said the group’s efforts have resulted in a new, more challenging reach of open river to float. On Saturday, Sanger said, a group of city and Bureau of Land Management volunteers plan to install fencing along a planned boating access just above the Portneuf Gap on Portneuf Road.
By promoting recreation in the river, Sanger hopes to lead the community to take greater pride in the Portneuf and to step up efforts to protect the resource.
“It’s been super exciting to see community members and especially a school using the river and getting out on the water,” Sanger said. “To see people still out on the river is really satisfying. It’s helped motivate city staff to continue working on some storm-water issues because all of our storm-water goes into the Portneuf River.”
Floating was a new experience for many of the PCCS students, such as seventh-grader Morgan Roberts. Roberts said he was intrigued by the opportunity to see the Portneuf from a different perspective.
“I’ve been in a canoe, but I was like 4, and my dad paddled,” Roberts said.
Cara Sonnemann, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at PCCS, said floating has been officially added to the list of activities included in the school’s adventure program.
“I saw a comment that one of the founders of the school actually made that this has been a dream she’s been waiting to see, all of our kids floating down the river,” Sonnemann said.
The PCCS curriculum features exhaustive lessons on a single topic covering several disciplines, called expeditions. Sonnemann teaches a health expedition and uses the river to educate her students about the benefits of spending time in or around the river to exercise or find tranquility. Students in other grades use the river to study water quality, pollinators, birds and insects.
“One of the reasons we built the school (by the river) is our longest expedition is on water quality,” Sonnemann said. “That’s why this piece of property was so attractive, because of its proximity both to the (Portneuf) Greenway and the river.”
Karyn Bethke, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade students at PCCS, was the first employee ever hired to work at the charter school. When she started with PCCS in the fall of 1999, the school was located in Pocatello’s Westwood Mall.
Bethke plans to partner with the PCCS art teacher, who teaches students a photography lesson, to make greeting cards featuring student images and poetry inspired by the Portneuf. The cards will be sold as a fundraiser to support middle-school projects. Bethke said seventh- and eighth-graders will also help build a kiosk to be located along the Greenway with informational panels devoted to wildlife and the health benefits of recreating along the river.
“We do a lot of outdoors stuff. We have access to City Creek and we’re able to go up there and do hiking and adventure,” Bethke said. “We have a different way to approach education that fits some students better.”