MAYNARD (CBS) – It’s a head start program for turtles. And the proud foster parents are local high school students dedicated to helping the creatures survive.

The young people have raised the turtles with loving care for the last eight months. On Thursday, with high hopes, they released 49 turtles that are considered “threatened” in Massachusetts.

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“Today is World Turtle Day,” said Jared Green of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And that makes it a really great day for small, Blanding’s turtles moving around in large plastic containers. Their existence is threatened mostly because their habitat is being destroyed by development.

Students at Bristol County Agricultural School released turtles into the wild. (WBZ-TV)

“You guys are really making a huge difference in the lives of these turtles,” Green told the gathered students. They are sophomores at the Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton. Since September they’ve cared for hatchlings. It’s part of a head start program run by U..S Fish and Wildlife.

“This is the 10th year the students have been raising turtles for us. Today they released their 800th head start,” Green said.

The release point is the Assabet River Wildlife Refuge in Maynard. Carefully, the students say goodbye to the creatures they’ve cared for the entire school year.

“I was very proud because my class and I worked really hard for them to grow really big and be able to set them free,” said Michaela Ventura, one of the students.

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The young people studied the turtles as they fed and cared for them and feel like they’re on a mission.

Students at Bristol County Agricultural School released turtles into the wild. (WBZ-TV)

“If we don’t take care of them, and we don’t try to boost their population, who’s going to? We can’t keep destroying their habitat and contribute to the problem and not try and fix it,” added Derek Wedge, another student.

The turtles are big enough now that they have a good chance of surviving in this protected environment.

“They’re a long-lived species. They can live for 70 to 80 years. So it’s just neat to think about how we’re having a real impact on this threatened species,” Green said.

“I hope that the majority of them will survive very well in the wild and eventually there will be enough living here for a sustainable population that we don’t have to head start them anymore,” said student Sydney St. Pierre.

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The young people are part of this project through their Natural Resource Management class. Two former students in the program have gone on to careers as wildlife biologists.

Lisa Hughes