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Cahoon crawling with critters

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published March 9, 2007


When a rooster cock-a-doodle-doos from the principal's office and folks barely bat an eye, it's clear that something different is afoot at Cahoon Elementary.

Currently in its first year as the district's only animal science magnet school, Cahoon is all about critters.

Classrooms have little mascots ranging from mealworms and fish to bearded dragons, and paintings of amphibians, mammals, birds and reptiles cover the walls.

This menagerie amid a concrete jungle mixes amazement with academics for the school's 391 first- through fifth-graders.

But inside Jane Wells' animal research lab is where things really get wild.

There's Homer the parakeet, box turtles Rocky and Sam, Iggy the iguana, Sergio the guinea pig, and Tom and Jerry the degus.

Degus are rodents, which Wells describes as a mix between a chinchilla and a squirrel.

"Watch out. They spray," she warns.

Oreo is the black and white-ringed California king snake.

The black rabbit's name is Jack.

There's Snowball - the albino hamster, a cocoa-colored rabbit named, what else, Cocoa, and other critters.

"The kids named them all," said Wells, the science and math resource teacher.

And Cahoon students' animal responsibilities don't end at the naming rights.

Students feed the animals, clean their cages and are involved in all aspects of their care.

"This is a pretty impoverished neighborhood," Wells said.

"When our students can love and care for something small, they can turn that into love for others and themselves," she said. "It's good for the community."

Cahoon is also a Title I school, so a majority of the students are considered economically disadvantaged.

"A lot of my students had never seen a rabbit before," said second-grade teacher Jill Henofer. "So, to see and touch one is giving them an experience they really wouldn't be getting anywhere else," she said.

When Henofer's second-grade class enters the lab, Wells orally quizzes them on the differences between mammals and reptiles before letting them get up close and personal with the animals.

"Quiet, calm and no poking," is Wells' gentle reminder.

After helping mist Iggy with water, Juan Mina compared Iggy's scales to Tom and Jerry's fur, drawing a cartoon diagram of the degus.

In the middle of the room, Rock'ivia Wilson and Neyshaliz Mitir built up the nerve to pet and hold Sergio as they took notes.

With sleeves rolled up, Cameron Dillon plunked his hand into the tiny turtle tank to pick up one of the red-eared sliders while Cheyanne Pelham peered through the water.

"Turtles are gross," said Cheyanne.

The Florida Aquarium donates a majority of the school's fish tanks and fish supplies. Cahoon also partners with Busch Gardens. Students take three trips there throughout the year and park representatives visit the school with exotic animals.

The exposure seems to be rubbing off on students.

Many are changing their answers to the proverbial question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"At the beginning of the year we had a lot of firefighters and policemen," said Henofer, "but now they want to be scientists and veterinarians."

Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com 813 269-5311.

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If you want to help

Cahoon Elementary Magnet School is in need of donations for its animal science concentrated curriculum, especially veterinarian services. To donate, contact the school at (813) 975-7647.

About this series

We're interested in community- and school-based programs that have proven successful. Is there an individual or program you can suggest? Contact Amber Mobley at 269-5311 or mobley@sptimes.com.