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Zoo is classroom for Rhodes Environmental Studies

A high school experience where students can spend time at the zoo, feeding giraffes and observing zebras and elephants up close, is something many teens could only dream of.

But at the new Rhodes School of Environmental Studies, a partnership with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is making this a reality. The zoo is working with the school to develop a curriculum where students will use the 183-acre park as their classroom.

While the zoo has been a partner to the District for several years, this is the first time it has worked directly with one school in a long-term, individual school-level collaboration, developing curriculum required year round for all students.

Vicki Searles is the director of conservation education at the zoo. She said she is excited to get kids out of the classroom and working directly with animals and conservation efforts.

“This partnership is all about being out in the field,” she said. “The goal is for students to learn the basics and then see how biology and the other sciences tie in to the work at the zoo.”

The program will be supported by a $300,000 grant from the KeyBank Foundation that is set to go into effect next spring. The grant was secured by the zoo’s nonprofit partner, the Cleveland Zoological Society.

Mike Vaughn is the Zoo Society Board President and Corporate Vice President of Operations at Lubrizol. He said the grant will allow the zoo's educators to strengthen their work with Cleveland students and teachers.

"Science is so important to our community - for dynamic student learning, optimal career potential and ultimately for a vibrant regional economy that benefits everyone,” Vaughn said. "The Zoo Society is grateful for the philanthropic investment of leading companies in zoo science programs. We all want the best for our region's youth and their future lives and careers in Ohio."

Rhodes Environmental Studies opened this fall along with five other new CMSD high schools: Bard High School Early College Cleveland East Campus, Campus International High School, Davis Aerospace & Maritime High School, John Adams College and Career Academy and Rhodes College and Career Academy.

At Rhodes Environmental Studies, all ninth-graders are enrolled in a class called Foundations of Inquiry, which is about making observations and asking questions. The course was developed in partnership with the zoo, the University of Akron’s biomimicry program and Great Lakes Biomimicry.

Some of the learning happens in the classroom, but the zoo - located less than two miles from the James Ford Rhodes Campus - is where students go to see their lessons in action.

The ninth-graders made their first zoo visit in September to meet the staff and become familiar with the park.

The students started the day by spreading out across the park, where zoo staff members told them to pretend they were Charles Darwin, whom the ninth-graders have been studying in biology. They told the students to observe the animals and their surroundings as though they were discovering them for the first time.

The groups spent time jotting down notes and sketching drawings of what they saw in the different areas of the zoo, including the African Savanna, Wilderness Trek and the Rainforest.

The students’ fascination was apparent on their faces and in their reactions as they took in their surroundings. One student broke open a nearby leaf and exclaimed at the “sticky goo” that came out. Another wondered aloud about a noise that the zebras made.

For Carlos Matos, the best part was when a zoo employee handed him a piece of lettuce and he fed it to a giraffe.

“It was so cool. I saw that it curved its tongue around my hand to grab it and its tongue was purple,” he said. “I’ve been to the zoo a lot before. But I’ve never done things like this.”

After the initial observations, the staff members asked questions to prompt deeper thinking: How is the behavior of the Amur leopard affected by the presence or absence of visitors at the exhibit? Do the seals and sea lions spend more time interacting with each other or acting independently?

Principal Tara Drouhard stopped by the zoo for the students’ first visit. She said that getting real-world experience is part of the school's mission, which is why the unique partnership with the Zoo is so valuable.

“The hope is that when we teach them to be advocates for an issue that is connected to the zoo, they’ll feel empowered to apply that same advocacy to other issues they feel passionate about,” Drouhard said.

The zoo and the school are developing a similar course for 10th-graders called conservation leadership. It will be designed around the zoo’s Future for Wildlife Conservation programs is expected to include at least one zoo visit a month.

For student Ronald Zambo, the Zoo trip solidified for him that he made the right high school choice. Ronald attended Tremont Montessori and planned on going to a Catholic high school.

But then he heard about the environmental studies program that, along with Rhodes College and Career Academy, will help replace the James F. Rhodes comprehensive high school.

“I love science, health and nature,” said Ronald, who wants to be a doctor. “I thought this seemed like a fun program, and so far it’s been really amazing."

CMSD Director of Portfolio Engagement Angee Shaker said the partnership exemplifies the goal of the District's portfolio strategy to give students options that align with their interests.

“It’s also about bringing the community into the schools and getting our students in touch with caring adults in the community,” Shaker said. “Because of partnerships like this, we’re getting better results.”