Marist students removed Chinese privet choking out trees and other native species along the bank of Nancy Creek.

At the beginning of the school year, students in the environmental science class at Marist School thought the creek running through their school’s Brookhaven campus looked just fine.

There were shrubs and trees and birds, just like they would expect to see. But after a closer look, they learned that an invasive plant species called Chinese privet was damaging the ecosystem of West Nancy Creek.

“I didn’t know anything about runoff or invasive species. I assumed those plants down there were part of nature,” said Micah Akin, who just completed his junior year. “We realized, wow, there are a ton of plants that aren’t supposed to be here.”

Nearly 40 high school students at Marist have spent the majority of the school year working on a major project to repair the creek.

Kelly Mandy, who teaches the environmental science class at Marist, said she wanted to give her students a hands-on project that would tie into what they were learning in class about stormwater runoff and invasive species.

“I had the idea of wanting the kids to be involved in some service learning and actively see the results of our work,” Mandy said.

The students were split into three teams that worked throughout the semester to improve the creek. The invasive species team focused on pulling privet out of the creek bed, the riparian restoration group researched native species to replant, and the stormwater runoff team planted a rain garden to stop polluted rainwater from eroding the bank and running into the creek.

“As a teacher, it’s been awesome to see them be so invested and enthusiastic about their school work,” Mandy said. “I have been totally amazed at their involvement and excitement. They’ve really gotten to own these projects and feel like they are their own. They’ve come in Saturdays to get work done, and they’ve stayed after school.”

Akin, who was one of the team leaders for the project, said he and his classmates didn’t realize how much work needed to be done to repair the creek bed.

“I was shocked. We thought maybe it would be a little bit of a cakewalk of a project. Once we realized what we had to do, we learned it was going to be very time consuming,” he said.

The class got very involved and even put in some extra hours to clean up the creek, Akin said.

“This term we were able to build on it even more and we have a lot of kids from around the school getting into it as well, so I would say we’ve started something big,” Akin said. “Even some of the seventh graders have gotten into pulling privet.”

Dani Spencer, a rising senior at Marist, said the students have seen an enthusiastic response to the project from the school and the surrounding community. Spencer is the president of the school’s environmental club and plans to get her club involved in the project next year, too.

“I definitely want to stay involved next year,” Spencer said. “I see it as an effort that can be collaborated with the environmental club and I see it as an effort we can finish doing.”

The students recently submitted a video of their efforts to the Green Education Foundation and were recognized with the Green in Action Award.

“They selected two top winners from across the nation and we were one of those two,” Mandy said. “We were super excited about it.”

Akin said though there is still work to be done, the students can already see the difference their work has made.

“The bank looks a whole lot better. The plants are looking really nice. It looks really clean,” he said. “It’s not just a cross country trail. We can actually enjoy the different species down there and say, wow, this is really beautiful.”