Colrain students hope to help revive fish population in North River

  • Service-learning teacher Talia Miller talks with Colrain Central School students on Friday about how to raise fish in hopes of repopulating the North River following a sulphuric acid leak. Staff Photo/Maureen O’Reilly

  • Paraprofessional Sue Booth-Daniels shows Colrain Central School students the different types of fish in the North River to inspire them to make necklaces representing the fish that died earlier this month due to a sulphuric acid leak. Staff Photo/Maureen O’Reilly

Staff Writer
Published: 9/16/2019 5:32:19 PM

COLRAIN — Ten thousand can be a challenging number for children. Even so, it’s a number that Lena Jillson’s first-grade class at Colrain Central School is focusing on.

When tens of thousands of fish were killed on Sept. 1 as the result of a sulphuric acid leak from Barnhardt Manufacturing Company, it was the talk of the school the next day, particularly because many students live near the North River and had seen the dead fish, Jillson said.

Jillson and service-learning teacher Talia Miller decided to turn tragedy into a project that would help students understand what happened and get them involved in finding a solution.

That’s why on Friday, the first-graders broke into three groups to work toward fixing a problem that occurred downstream in the same river that flows right by their school.

Since the incident, the students learned about why the sulphuric acid affected the fish, also reading about the incident in the Greenfield Recorder, Jillson said. And then there was that challenging number, starting with practice counting to 1,000.

To illustrate the concept on Friday, Miller held up a sheet of paper that had a neat square made of dots. Ten thousand dots. The concept proved easier for the students to grasp with a visualization.

Next, Miller held up a piece of paper with the action steps the students brainstormed last week. They could make a poster of information. They could write a letter to go in the newspaper. They could reach out to groups, like the Deerfield River Watershed Association or Trout Unlimited. With knowledge about how the fish died, they could also tell others at school.

“We gotta get going on this big problem we’re trying to solve,” Miller said.

After a few guided belly breaths, students had to make a choice. Did they want to brainstorm how to raise fish? Did they want to make necklaces or other artwork that can represent the fish that died? Did they want to write a letter to the newspaper?

“Remember, it’s (what is a) good fit for you, not what your friends are doing,” Jillson reminded the class.

One group went with paraprofessional Sue Booth-Daniels to plan necklace making, and two smaller groups went with Miller and Jillson to discuss how to raise 10,000 fish.

To her small group on the carpet, Miller explained that if the class raises eggs, the fish will get big enough to be released into the wild. Many students were excited by the idea of releasing small fish in the upstream part of the river outside their school.

They pondered what they would need to raise fish: a tank, water, structures for them to hide under inside the tanks, fish food and bubbles. The latter, Miller jotted down as “aerator/filter.”

The students with Booth-Daniels thought about how to best represent 10,000 fish through necklaces. At the table were pictures of fish from the Deerfield River: brown trout, rainbow trout, white suckers, longnose dace and Eastern blacknose dace. The colors of the fish inspired them to put yellow, pink, white and “polka dot” beads on their list of supplies.

“They’re pretty invested in it,” Jillson said, adding that this service-learning project has allowed her to incorporate real-life math and natural science into her classroom.

Miller emphasized that engagement is a key part of service-learning at Colrain Central: identifying a problem and coming up with solutions.

“The goal is, that as much as possible, you’re following their lead,” Miller said, adding that “the kids’ enthusiasm propels it into a bigger project.”

Miller doesn’t know exactly where the project will end, but noted that she set up a donation page online to gather the necessary money for her students to raise fish in the classroom. Donations can be made at

Reach Maureen O’Reilly at 413-772-0261, ext. 280 or


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