Seven school buses pulled into the Botzum railroad station in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on Thursday morning.
Then 229 first-, second- and third-graders from Romig Road Community School climbed aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train to learn about animals that live in the park.
Once the train pulled out of the station, ranger Kerry Muhl talked about the park, told American Indian stories with talking animals and passed around shells, a deer pelt, antlers and replica skulls of a deer and a coyote.
Romig Road's fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders will ride the train today and learn about transportation.
Grant money from the Sisler McFawn Foundation paid for the train tickets (about $3,000) and, more importantly, the bus transportation.
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad has received money from Sisler McFawn and the Kenneth Calhoun Charitable Trust to host field trips for inner-city schools and expects 2,400 riders this spring, mostly from Akron Public Schools. Romig Road is the only Akron charter school to receive grant money this spring, though other charter schools from Cleveland have participated in recent years.
''That's how we've been able to reach out to these schools and offer them a field trip that they wouldn't normally have the budget to do,'' said Kelly Steele-Moore, the railroad's marketing director.
The grant money has enabled many more schools to participate this year, Muhl said.
''The schools are so strapped for money,'' Muhl said. ''Last year, we were really low as far as our attendance.''
Paying for the buses is key.
''In talking with teachers and principals, there are schools that can actually pay for field trips; it's the buses that always get them,'' Muhl said. ''So as a result, if there's a grant that can actually pay for the busing, too, they jump on it.''
The first train car of third-graders Muhl addressed hushed up quickly when she promised to tell a story.
''You just saw that beaver marsh that is over there and you know, it's a really beautiful place, but it didn't start out so beautiful and I'm going to tell you the story of the beaver marsh,'' Muhl said.
She explained that in the 1960s and 1970s, the marsh was a junkyard filled with old cars, appliances and tires. But as the land was becoming a national park, people got to work clearing out the trash.
''All of a sudden, beaver came back into this area, after being extinct in this area since the 1830s,'' she said. ''They came back and they dammed up a portion of what was called the Ohio & Erie Canal and it made that beautiful beaver marsh.''
She said that's an example of what makes the Cuyahoga Valley National Park special.
''So when you think about things around maybe where you are or in other places around the country that may not look so nice, you always have a chance to clean things up,'' she said.
She told an American Indian story about how a talkative turtle tried to hitch a ride south for the winter with migrating birds and got dropped on his back when he couldn't keep his mouth shut. That's why he sleeps in the mud at the bottom of the pond each winter and has a shell that looks cracked.
Zakiya Littlepage, 8, liked that story.
''I've got a pet turtle,'' she said.
She also enjoyed documenting her first trip on a train, which journeyed as far north as the Boston Mills station by the ski resort before returning.
''I took pictures of the trees and stuff and I took pictures of houses,'' she said. ''I just love riding around.''
La'tarien Davis, who is 9, was thrilled to see a creature that wasn't on the agenda gliding along the surface of a pond beside the tracks.
''I saw a snake swimming,'' he said.
Damariontae Brightwell, also 8, enjoyed hearing about the beaver marsh.
When asked what he had learned on the train, he replied with a comedian's sense of timing: ''That animals could talk.''
That got a big belly laugh from Jerome Love, who accompanied his 9-year-old nephew Malachi Watson on the trip.
''I'm like him,'' Love said. ''I didn't know turtles could talk, either.''
Love was one of 68 adults who came on the trip, which thrilled Janice Ickes, the Romig Road Community School special education coach who organized the trip. She said she hoped the experience would lead to more opportunities for parents and children to spend time together learning.
''We had so many more adults and even extended family members who wanted to come, that we had to hire two more buses at the last minute,'' she said. ''This is an experience that will make a memory to last a lifetime.''