Issaquah schools face end of Salmon in the Classroom

January 4, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

State program is a casualty of deep budget cuts

The salmon — or, more specifically, delicate salmon eggs no larger than a pencil eraser — return to a Clark Elementary School classroom each year.

But fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Liza Rickey could face a change in the curriculum soon as the state Salmon in the Classroom program ends.

In the program, students raise salmon, learn about water quality and salmon habitat, and discover the relationship between Issaquah Creek and Puget Sound.

State legislators eliminated dollars for the program in a round of budget cuts during a Dec. 11 special session. The program is a casualty of cuts as state leaders face a $4 billion budget hole.

“It’s such a worthy project for the kids to see,” Rickey said. “It’s hands on, it’s real world. It’s a very important resource in our area, and now it’s not even available for them to experience in that way.”

The state used federal dollars to fund Salmon in the Classroom, but the funding has been shifted to other fish and wildlife programs.

The cut saves the cash-strapped state $110,000 through June 30 and a projected $442,000 in the 2011-13 budget. Gov. Chris Gregoire also proposed eliminating the program in the upcoming budget.

The end of Salmon in the Classroom caught Rickey and other teachers in the program by surprise.

Some teachers had already picked up salmon eggs for the program. Rickey had secured a permit from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to raise the salmon, before she learned about the cut late last month from Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery Executive Director Gestin Suttle.

Rickey planned to pick up eggs from the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery after the winter break.

“There was no heads up,” she said. “I got the permit without any problem whatsoever. I didn’t get any papers or e-mails or anything that this might be coming down the way.”

Uncertain future for local schools

The salmon program is part of a yearlong water ecology unit at Clark and is integrated into the science-and-technology curriculum.

Sunset Elementary School has also participated in the state program. Students raised the eggs to fry and released the salmon into Lewis Creek. Other elementary schools in the Issaquah School District — Apollo, Cascade Ridge and Endeavour — incorporated Salmon in the Classroom into lessons.

Statewide, the Salmon in the Classroom program reached about 40,000 students in almost 500 schools.

“We certainly didn’t want to lose this program,” state Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Craig Bartlett said. “It’s provided real education to kids for the last 20 years.”

Funding for the program included salaries for 2.5 full-time employees to provide some instructional assistance to teachers and to help educators secure the permits necessary to release salmon into the wild. Salmon in the Classroom administrators also studied watersheds to determine suitable locations to release tiny salmon.

The fish and wildlife agency has already endured $37 million in cuts and faces additional reductions as the Legislature prepares to slash state spending further.

“The financial travails of the state have left us without enough money to get through until the next biennium,” Bartlett said.

The downtown Issaquah hatchery is scheduled to distribute salmon eggs to 87 schools throughout King County in upcoming months. Plans call for students to raise and release tiny salmon from the eggs, but Suttle and area educators remain uncertain about the future in the aftermath of the state cuts.

The hatchery is in line to receive coho salmon eggs from a Sultan hatchery to supplement a feeble coho run on Issaquah Creek. Hatchery crews then distribute the tiny eggs to schools and co-ops.

Program sparks students’ interest

Supporters said the Salmon in the Classroom program adds depth and appeal to science curriculum for a small price in a multibillion-dollar state budget.

“For the amount of money that this program costs and the amount of outreach that it accomplishes, if you look at how many children it impacts, I think it’s a worthwhile program,” Suttle said. “You get a lot for your money with this program.”

The salmon education effort extends beyond the classroom at Clark. Students raised $2,000 and donated the money to FISH for a display at the downtown hatchery last year.

“Science is my passion. It’s my background. I feel very, very strongly about it,” Rickey said. “When I had the opportunity to start this program, it was a perfect fit for me.”

So, Rickey set up a 50-gallon tank in the classroom — purchased for a deal on craigslist — and then used the hands-on program to teach fourth- and fifth-graders to care for the eggs and fledgling fish. Then, in the spring, teachers and students journey to Issaquah Creek to release the fish. The field trip includes water-quality testing.

Rickey said she hopes the program can continue in some way for Clark students, perhaps through field trips to the downtown hatchery to examine tiny fish.

“It’s definitely not going to be as meaningful, because we’ll have to take a field trip to monitor them,” she said.

Salmon in the Classroom supporters said the program is more than a simple aquarium in a classroom. Students study the fish and — in the process — learn about ecology and develop problem-solving skills.

“It really takes what they’re learning from the textbook and brings it to life,” Suttle said. “It’s tangible, it makes it more meaningful and it can spark an interest in children in a way that a lecture or a video or a textbook can’t.”

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