No Classroom Left Behind
The success of the Pets in the Classroom program is being measured one child at a time.
In June 2014, the Pet Care Trust’s (PCT) Pets in the Classroom program concluded the most successful school year in its four-year history. More than 17,000 grants were awarded to teachers in grades pre-K through eight to obtain a classroom pet and the supplies needed to properly care for the animal. This was a 23-percent increase over the prior year, bringing the total number of grants to more than 40,000 since 2011.
Now we are well into a new school year, and there has been no letup in grant applications from enthusiastic teachers. In fact, more than 12,300 grants were awarded between August and October. The statistics are impressive, but what does daily exposure to a classroom pet mean to a child? How can we measure success beyond cold numbers?
The answer lies with the teachers who, every day, observe the impact that pets have on the children in their classrooms. Their stories are heartwarming and give powerful testimony to the intrinsic value of the program.
Special Needs, Special Pets
Kristi Takens is an elementary school counselor in Byron Center, Mich. She counsels nearly 1,000 students in two schools. Her assistant Ruby is “a sweet little rat who is very friendly, loves people, loves the kids, and is very smart,” according to Takens. Acquired with the help of a Pets in the Classroom grant, Ruby has been “an awesome addition to my counseling program,” Takens says.
“I have had students with emotional impairments that love to use Ruby as an incentive. By making good classroom behavior choices, they can earn enough tickets to come in to spend time playing with Ruby,” explains Takens. “ I have had a student who will rarely talk to adults and peers but will come in and use a puppet and speak completely full sentences to Ruby. I also have observed that kids who really need sensory input just love to have Ruby climb on them. It relaxes them and really centers them allowing them to calm down and get through their day.”
Classroom pets can play an important role in helping special-needs students focus on their school work. Joleen Lundin, a teacher at Madison Elementary School in Blaine, Minn., has a fish tank in her fifth-grade classroom. “It is wonderful for my ADHD kids who get up, wander [over] to look at the tank for a few minutes, and come back to their seat to work again,” she says. “We also use it in our school for other kids who need a break [especially autistic students] and as a reward system [they get to feed the fish].”
Kristine Kovari, Century Oaks Elementary School in Elgin, Ill., has had a similar experience. “We are enjoying the fish tank that we set up last school year with the grant. The classroom is a special education self-contained classroom with students ranging in age from kindergarten to third grade. Having fish in the classroom is very soothing for the students. They enjoy watching them swim and comment daily about the fish. It is a very positive experience.”
Bringing Learning to Life
Kids of all abilities learn better when the lesson contains an element of fun, and teachers have come up with creative ways to bring classroom pets into their lesson plans. Pets have been incorporated into science, art, writing and math classes with great results. Chris Hannah, a music teacher at Dr. William Mennies Elementary School in Vineland, N.J., explains how a bearded dragon named Phil has become a superstar at his school.
“My experience with the program has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Hannah. “ I am an elementary music teacher in a low-income district in southern New Jersey, serving approximately 650 students per year. Phil, our bearded dragon, has become a school mascot of sorts. Not a school day goes by without countless students coming to see him, talk to him or—for the privileged ones—feed him. He has become an integral part of science lessons in several classrooms, graphing and charting his growth rate, and he even has his own Instagram page. Students are very motivated to be chosen [to be part of] the weekly Phil’s Feeders Club. I cannot thank the grant enough for opening my eyes to just how much any student can benefit from the experience.”
Lauren Walter and Robin Frederick, the kindergarten team at Edgewood Elementary in Pittsburgh, Pa., have a veritable zoo thanks to Pets in the Classroom. They have designed a science unit on animals featuring fish, bearded dragons, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, turtles, toads, a tarantula and a mouse. “We teach our children about each animal through books, observation, diagramming, writing activities, and a variety of arts and crafts projects,” says Walter. “We discuss how one must have a peaceful body and be responsible to have and adequately care for pets. The reward system is invaluable to my children’s behavior, and their best writing usually comes from these experiences.”
PCT’s goal is to place pets in 100,000 classrooms, giving five million children the opportunity to interact with a pet every school day. The Pets in the Classroom program is more than halfway toward reaching this goal. PCT recently launched a crowd-funding campaign through StartSomeGood.com to raise $60,000 in 60 days. Anyone who would like to contribute to the Pets in the Classroom program can go to petsintheclassroom.org and click on the donate tab. They can contribute as little as $10, and contributors of $20 or more will receive a set of note cards featuring kids’ artwork of their classroom pets.
Steve King is executive director of the Pet Care Trust and president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association.