The big turtle transfer

The courtyard garden at Johnson Park Elementary School is home to many things. It has milkweeds and monarch butterflies, towering trees and flowering plants. A few years ago it had three Uzbekistan tortoises – named Izzy, Becky and Stan by adoring students. But in 2009 they were shipped to North Dakota to a habitat more suitable to their needs and since then, the garden has been short of reptiles.

On Thursday afternoon, this changed. Riverside science teacher Mark Eastburn, who used to teach Spanish at Johnson Park, returned to his old stomping grounds to release a cohort of turtles. Students gathered by orange buckets filled with big turtles, medium-sized turtles and baby turtles the size of a silver dollar.

With excitement, a bit of caution and a hint of “freaking out,” kids of all ages lined up where they learned, under the supervision of Eastburn, JP science teacher Lora Hobart and Principal Dr. Robert Ginsberg, how to properly handle a turtle. They then scattered throughout the open air courtyard and placed the turtles wherever they saw fit. These turtles would not be caged, they would be free to roam in a natural habitat and observed only when found.

“These are really adding to our ecosystem,” Hobart said. “We’re doing a lot of work on genetics as part of the Next Generation Science Standards and the turtles will help a lot to facilitate the discussion. We’ve been studying plants in the curriculum. When the kids come out here now, they’ll look for the turtles and maybe one will be next to a purple plant. Then we can learn about that. Plus, being outside is just so good for the kids – helps with stress, to relax in nature.”

When the turtles first arrived to Riverside after Eastburn received a $1,200 grant from the Princeton Education Foundation in December of 2014, there were 38 of them. Eastburn implemented an initial population study with his students and helped them analyze the data through a series of science games. Since then, there were 11 hatchling turtles in fall of 2015 and many eggs in 2016. The population grew to more than 60, and Riverside decided it was time to share.

“I like this one,” first grader James Price said as he kneeled down to observe a baby turtle in the JP yard. “I think he’s pretty tiny.”

Third grader Leonardo Momo was a bit precarious of the larger turtles, as his friend Ellington Hinds held the big reptile’s underbelly towards his face for a closer look.

“I am excited they’re here,” Momo said. “I like how they walk.”

The turtle, now placed in the grass, scurried away – its legs seemingly bow-legged on either side of it’s oval, orange-speckled shell.

“It’s kinda cool,” Momo continued, “and kinda fun.”

Jocera Adams, another third grader, picked up a baby turtle – which appeared small even in the palm of her young hand – and held it delicately.

“My favorite thing is, well they’re so cute,” she said smiling. “I really like the babies.”

Adams walked carefully and showed off her new friend to the younger children.

Steve Mahiri, a fifth grader from Riverside, came along to JP to assist with the turtles adjusting in their new home.

“It’s been good to help them transfer,” Mahiri said. “I named one of them Squid Nugget – it’s from a Youtuber. I’m gonna miss him.”

According to Eastburn, the turtle project has been a significant component to help spark children’s curiosity in science and develop an understanding of many topics covered in NGSS. To learn more about the turtles, how you can collaborate or get involved, visit

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida