ALAMEDA -- On the morning of June 5, busy groups of Alameda eighth- and ninth-graders from the Nea and Alameda Community Learning Centers huddled around the edges of the Encinal High School pool, preparing their teams and discussing strategy for the upcoming races.

The teams made final inspections of the cardboard boats they conceived, designed and built in their "Science through Engineering" classes. Many were painted with colorful designs and christened with a descriptive name or symbol for luck and reflect the artistic and engineering skills of their team members. As they lined up, the teams determined which two teammates would paddle the boat and which two would launch it.

"It's an important decision," said ACLC eighth-grader Grace Bryant. "The paddlers have to be light enough not to weigh down the boat but strong enough to paddle hard."

"And they have to know how to steer and swim," added eighth-grader Avalon Cassard. "There's a fair chance they won't make it across the pool since the boats are only made of cardboard, paint and duct tape."

The annual cardboard boat races have been a tradition at ACLC almost since its founding 18 years ago. It's a "legacy project" in their project-based educational approach, meaning it is such a beloved part of school culture that it remains a permanent fixture in the science curriculum at both schools. The original winning boat still hangs in the ACLC Center at Encinal and will move with them to their new location at 400 Grand Street next year.

What's new in the past three years is that the race has expanded to include their sister public charter school, Nea Community Learning Center. Nea's Lead Facilitator Principal Maafi Gueye served as emcee of the event and stoked the competition with her banter and quips directed toward the different teams as they stepped up to the launching area.

"The competition has heated up now that there are two schools involved," said Paul Bentz, executive director of Community Learning Center Schools (CLCS), the charter management organization that oversees both schools. "It's no longer just a race between classmates. They're defending the honor of their respective schools."

The teams race to win a gold, silver or bronze painted paddle inscribed with their names and hung on the wall of their school. Until now, the winning boats have also all remained on display in the rafters at ACLC, but ACLC's upcoming move to 400 Grand Street will prevent that tradition from continuing because of a lack of space at the new location.

"Just like in real life, it's all a matter of design, construction and quality of materials," said Carlton Grizzle, facilitator of ACLC's eighth-grade "Science through Engineering" classes. "The design will determine how easy or difficult it is to steer and paddle the boat, and the quality of materials and construction will determine how long it lasts in the water. All teams are limited to cardboard, duct tape (on joints only) and paint, but there's an infinite combination of all these factors in the building of each boat."

-- Bara Waters