Riverside Elementary School in Princeton, New Jersey is where the Teacher Turtles Project started, under the leadership of science specialist Mark Eastburn. Fascinated by turtles as a child, Mark has seen through fifteen years of teaching that students share his enthusiasm for these iconic reptiles. Mark started working as a science specialist at Riverside in 2011, hired by former principal William “Bill” Cirullo, who passed away in February 2016. For as long as Bill had been at Riverside, during a career that spanned more than 30 years, a population of Eastern box turtles had been living in the school’s enclosed courtyard, but until Mark started working there, no one had collected any data on how many turtles were in the courtyard, where these turtles came from, or how these turtles might be related.
Thanks to a grant from the Princeton Education Foundation in 2014, which was awarded to support Mark’s proposal, “Understanding Genetics Through Turtles,” Mark was provided with a starting set of resources that allowed him to digitally document every individual turtle, test their genetic markers (in collaboration with Bridgett vonHoldt and Zemer Gitai of Princeton University and Kathrin Frölich of Ludwig-Maximillians-University in Munich). As a result, it was determined that the Riverside courtyard had a population of nearly 50 turtles in total, and since new hatchlings were being discovered each year, a plan began to take shape to resettle turtles at other schools. This resettlement has become necessary because the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a scientific holding permit to Riverside School (see below), which allows us to legally keep these turtles, but does not give us clearance to release turtles into the wild. Thankfully, we have found interested schools who will be setting up turtle gardens of their own!