The sound of the Rev. Johnny Calhoun's voice filled the classroom, echoed by a group of students from Monarch Academy in Annapolis, Md.
"We are leapers, one and all; we are leapers, big and small; we are leapers because we're smart; we are leapers, we're ready to start," Calhoun said.
They're "leapers" because they're a part of LEAP — Learning and Exploring After School Program.
LEAP is an environmentally focused after-school program for elementary students that kicked off at Monarch Academy earlier this month. That chant will start off every session of the program, which is run by Our Creeks & Conservancy, an Annapolis nonprofit with the goal of engaging and educating diverse communities about environmental conservation and sustainability.
Calhoun is the group's executive director, and also a pastor at Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Annapolis. The vision of Our Creeks & Conservancy is environmental ownership, he said — particularly for underserved communities. The idea was spurred by a desire to connect the African American community with the environmental community.
"Our community is environmentally conscious, but not environmentally active," he said.
And now, Calhoun has a program to get in on the ground level by exposing elementary students of all races to nature.
The program matters because people all breathe the same air, drink the same water and stand on the same planet, Calhoun said. There are also a variety of career opportunities for students in the environmental community — students might make a business of their own or seek out a career in conservation.
LEAP is Calhoun's latest environmental initiative, but it's not his first — he helped bring an environmentally focused summer youth program for 16- to 24-year-olds to the county in 2015, followed by a Junior Watershed Stewards club at Annapolis High School.
The Junior Watershed Stewards club serves as a pipeline, bringing students to the summer youth program, called Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth, or READY. Through that program, young people earn $10 an hour to learn about environmental stewardship and then to work on projects such as maintaining rain gardens or ridding a creek of invasive phragmites. The pilot program for READY took place in 2015, when 10 people worked for four weeks. It doubled in size the next summer, with 40 people working for eight weeks.
READY volunteered its services those first two years, but this year it became a social enterprise designed to earn money to become self-sustaining and support the Junior Watershed Stewards program and LEAP.
LEAP is an extension of that pipeline. It aims to tackle something Calhoun calls nature deficit disorder — a lack of nature in a person's life. Having that exposure to nature not only makes one calmer, but also helps one's ability to concentrate, Calhoun said. He is hoping as the program continues, the test scores and behavior of the elementary students will improve.
After a successful pilot program held this spring at the Mount Olive Community Life Center with a dozen students from Mills-Parole Elementary School, LEAP has moved into Monarch Academy, where 16 students will meet twice a week to receive homework help and lessons on a broad swath of subjects Calhoun calls STREAM: science, technology, reading, environment, arts and math.
The program's focus on environmental literacy will lend support to those other subjects by providing hands-on opportunities to apply the concepts, Calhoun said.
LEAP now has a dedicated space on the bottom floor of the Monarch Academy, with shells and terrariums already on one table and other objects such as faux sea turtles filling the room.
Monarch students will meet on Mondays and Thursdays, and a separate group of students will meet at the Key School on Saturdays, in partnership with the Centro de Ayuda, or Center of Help.
On the first day at Monarch, students met to discuss mindfulness, had a snack, got help with homework, played dodgeball to get moving and then completed an activity using tangrams. Building the student's ability to pay attention is key, LEAP director Tatiana Klein said.
"Attention is the door for learning, so you have to develop attention," Klein said.
LaCreshia Batteast, a special-education teacher at Monarch who is also certified in high school biology, also helps teach the LEAP group. She is looking forward to teaching students about water quality and environmental literacy, as well as showing them the variety of careers students can pursue to help animals.
Thursday was a rainy day — the program has planned visits from Master Watershed Stewards, aquarium officials and other activities to expose the children to nature in the future. The program will have a garden that students will learn to maintain and an aquarium filled with African cichlids, Calhoun said.
Ultimately, Calhoun wants to grow the after-school program from two days a week to five, and from two elementary schools to every elementary school in the county.