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Salmon savers: Spring Valley Montessori nurses creek to health
For 25 years and counting, a school tradition gives local salmon a fighting chance.
Spring Valley Montessori School's annual salmon release has helped revive the salmon in the West Hylebos Creek.
The creek runs through the campus, located off Pacific Highway in southern Federal Way. Thirty years ago, salmon packed the creek, bumping into one another while migrating upstream.
"We used to count 25 to 30 salmon in 30 minutes," said principal Gulsevin Kayihan as students released hatchlings into the creek May 25. "There were so many. I wish we had pictures. It has dwindled so much."
As development spread across the fledgling city, and so did pollution in the creek.
"We'd find toilet bowls washed up on the banks of the creek," she said. "Federal Way's growth started destroying the habitat of the salmon."
As a result, the salmon population plummeted. Nowadays, one or two salmon swimming in the creek becomes an event for the whole school to witness.
The creek has made a comeback, school staff say, in the years since Spring Valley's salmon release program began. The city contributes to the restoration by planting bushes, trees and other spots for shade-loving salmon. The ongoing collaborative effort is slowly nursing the waters back to health.
Madeleine Justus, 95, founded Spring Valley Montessori School in 1951, the first school of its kind in Washington. The salmon life cycle fascinates Justus, who was inspired by an article more than 70 years ago while living in her native Romania.
"She wanted to educate the children on the life cycle of salmon," said Lori Sweeney about the school's founder.
Sweeney, who leads the salmon program, monitors the hatchlings year-round, even on snow days and weekends, making sure their holding tank stays at 48 degrees. Having grown up to appreciate the outdoors, Sweeney is powered by a passion for the lesson these salmon teach to the school's nearly 100 students.
"I want students to feel like they've taken part in something respectful of nature," Sweeney said.
Spring Valley students raise the salmon, starting from the eggs. The older elementary students help their younger counterparts, ages preschool and up, release the salmon into the creek.
About 180 to 200 hatchlings make it to the school's annual salmon release. While standing above the creek on a footbridge, students pour the baby coho salmon down a water slide of sorts and into the stream.
State and tribal biologists say 15 percent of the salmon released at Spring Valley will return.
Here's an up-close look at one of the hatchlings at the May 25 release: