Last summer, the transformation of Hutto Elementary School’s central courtyard began. After the 2011 drought claimed a shade tree that had served as the courtyard’s focal point for many years, one of the school’s long-standing employees took action to transform it into a conservation habitat for the five resident Texas box turtles living in the outdoor space.
Welch said the project began when she became aware that the turtles were on the state’s list of protected species.
“I started doing research and redirecting the landscape project, and ultimately it became a project of trying to create a habitat,” Welch said.
The result is essentially a living classroom for students at the school after a team of teachers, students, parents and community members spent long summer hours hauling, weeding, measuring and building various elements of what is now a bonafide preservation environment for the turtles, which are protected under state law.
Everything from rainwater collection to special plants will help create the right environment for the turtles, Welch said. But, as much as the renovation protects the turtles, it also serves as a learning opportunity for students.
“We’re creating a wildlife observatory for the children, so our children can actually be conservationists,” Welch said.
Third-graders already have spent time in the courtyard observing the behavior of the two male and three female turtles.
“They’re mapping it and doing observations of growth,” Welch said. “Lots of kids have gone out there to enjoy it so far.”
Eventually students will help feed and water the turtles, which eat mostly foods from a nearby garden in addition to bugs and worms, Welch said.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, box turtles have an average life span of about 20 years, but have been documented to live up to 50 years, and there are even reports of box turtles achieving 100 years.
The state reports box turtle populations have declined in recent years, and anyone finding one should document it by completing a form at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/boxturtles.
Hutto Elementary’s turtles already have been documented with the state, Welch said, but the next step is getting state recognition for the environment created at the school.
“The final result is that it will be a certified habitat,” Welch said. “That’s been the goal since we found out the turtles were on the protected list.”
The project has gotten the attention of the Ft. Worth Zoo, she said, and a webcam aimed at the HES turtles will be fed back to the zoo’s website beginning Oct. 2. Students are preparing to watch the footage that is associated with the zoo’s well-known educational character Safari Sam.
The HES courtyard not only will provide a habitat for the turtles, but for plants, butterflies and insects as well.