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Santa Monica High School students fill trays with ocean water containing bacteria in Benjamin Kay's science class at Samohi on Thursday afternoon. The students are part of the Surfrider Foundation's Teach and Test Program, which aims to educate youth about water quality. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SAMOHI — Every Wednesday morning while his peers are still rolling out of bed and rubbing the crust from their eyes, Raphael Mawrence is at the beach, not hitting the waves, but rather learning about the marine environment.

The 11th grader is among more than a dozen Santa Monica High School students who for the past seven weeks have been collecting and analyzing water samples from the Santa Monica Bay, monitoring bacteria levels and trying to understand the factors that make the local beach one of the most polluted in the state.

The group of approximately 15 teenagers are part of the Surfrider Foundation’s Teach & Test Program, which aims to educate students about urban runoff and other environmental issues, giving them the tools necessary to make a positive impact in the community.

“I get to see what I’m swimming in,” Mawrence said.

Local beaches continually post poor marks in Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card, which grades water quality at more than 500 locations statewide. The most recent report card last May found that L.A. County is home to five of the top 10 lowest-rated beaches. The pier ranked second on the list of the “Top 10 Beach Bummers,” just behind Avalon Harbor Beach at Catalina Island.

Through funding from the Surfrider Foundation West Los Angeles/Malibu Chapter and other grants, including the California Coastal Commission’s Whale Tail Grant, the students test their samples at the new Samohi Surfrider Marine Laboratory — a classroom in the school’s science building that is stacked with roughly $9,000 worth of equipment.

“It’s mostly about empowering the kids, empowering the future generations to impact changes, getting them actively engaged in the community, giving them a voice and having them tackle real environmental issues the world is facing right now and be problem solvers,” Lindsey Jurca, the education chair for the local Surfrider chapter’s executive committee, said.

While the program has been in place in schools across the state for years, including in the South Bay, Samohi is the first participating high school on the Westside.

The students go out every week to collect samples at three locations — Tower 26, the Santa Monica Pier and the Pico-Kenter Storm Drain.

They then return to the lab where they grow bacteria in an incubator through which they are able to determine the water quality about 24 hours later, Benjamin Kay, the program adviser and marine biology teacher, said.

The participants are either enrolled in Kay’s classes or are members of several student organizations, including Team Marine and the Heal the Bay Club, both of which focus on oceanic environmental issues.

“They’re very empowered by the fact that they are doing the research from start to finish by themselves,” Kay said. “The results matter to them because they own the results and they’re doing the dirty work.”

Kay hopes to expand the program to all marine biology students at the high school, reaching about 200 teenagers.

A major component of the program involves the students educating the community about their findings through presentations to their peers and city officials and visits to local middle schools.

The results of the first few water samples have been surprising to the students.

“I noticed that the ocean is not as clean as I thought it would be,” Mawrence said.

His peer, fellow junior Valerie Wacker, has a different take on the results.

“It’s a little bit cleaner than I thought because a lot of people are always making fun of the bay and how dirty it is,” she said. “I feel comfortable swimming in the beach knowing that it’s OK.”

Wacker, who got involved with Team Marine through a friend, described the experience collecting samples and running tests as “adult like.”

“It’s interesting because we go at 7:30 in the morning onto the beach and it’s very cold but so beautiful to be taking water samples to show the public how healthy our beach is,” she said. “It’s really important to know what you’re swimming in.”

melodyh@smdp.com