Salmon in the Classroom reaches crossroads

March 29, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Clark Elementary School students (from left) Callie Mejia, 10, Hannah Halstead, 10, Jackson Rubin, 10, and Caelan Varner, 11, take turns feeding the coho salmon fry growing in the science room aquarium. By Greg Farrar

Questions remain about start-up costs, permits

For a Clark Elementary School class, raising coho salmon from eggs no larger than a BB pellet to miniscule fish is part lesson, part ritual.

Students traipse down the hallway from class to the aquarium in a science room in the morning, again at lunchtime and before the last bell rings in the afternoon. Using a small spatula, students scoop salmon food — a coarse substance similar to dirt in color and texture — into the aquarium.

“I like the fact that they grow and seeing the steps they’re going through,” fifth-grader Callie Mejia, 11, said during a pause in salmon care and feeding March 22.

The annual salmon-rearing program faces a murky future, despite popularity among students and elementary school teachers in the Issaquah School District and elsewhere in the state.

The culprit is a state budget gap deeper than Puget Sound.

State legislators eliminated dollars for the Salmon in the Classroom program in a round of budget cuts during a December special session. The state faces a $5.1 billion hole for the 2011-13 budget.

The decision to eliminate Salmon in the Classroom saved $110,000 through June 30 and a projected $442,000 in the 2011-13 budget. Gov. Chris Gregoire also proposed eliminating Salmon in the Classroom in the upcoming budget.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife — the agency responsible for the program — shifted the federal dollars to fund Salmon in the Classroom to other fish and wildlife programs.

The program at Clark, under fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Liza Rickey, is all but certain to endure because the class has the proper equipment in place. Other programs in the Issaquah School District might succumb to the cutback.

Salmon in the Classroom, cuts in the statehouse

Lauren Molnar, a third-grade teacher at Apollo Elementary School, participated in the program, and joined students to release 243 salmon into Issaquah Creek during a March 23 outing. Then, Molnar cleaned and stored the tank.

“It was a very positive, hands-on and experienced-driven learning experience for the students, where they were able to learn about the life cycle of a salmon, as well as learn about an important part of the environment in which they live,” she said. “This program will be missed next year.”

Jo Wadsworth, deputy assistant director of the fish program at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said educators remain interested in maintaining Salmon in the Classroom despite the lack of state support.

“All of the schools that we’ve heard from that are interested are looking at a variety of ways to continue the program, work with volunteer groups in their communities, see if they can get some funding to print the materials, that sort of thing,” she said.

Funding for Salmon in the Classroom included salaries for 2.5 full-time employees to offer instructional assistance to teachers and to help educators secure the permits necessary to raise and release salmon. Educators do not pay for the permits, though the process can be difficult to navigate.

Wadsworth said the agency is considering options to assist schools in securing permits. Perhaps the state hatchery system could handle permitting, she added.

Undefined plans for the future

Celina Steiger, Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery education coordinator, said permitting remains the No. 1 hurdle for teachers participating in Salmon the Classroom for multiple years.

“Ultimately, the permitting is the big issue,” Steiger said. “It’s not necessarily the in-classroom support or the tank troubleshooting, that kind of thing.”

For teachers joining the program, start-up costs — including a large tank and a chiller to maintain the water temperature at 46 degrees — can be prohibitive.

“Once the system is up and running, the only help you need is a permit,” Rickey said.

The decision to eliminate Salmon the Classroom brought together stakeholders from the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, Seattle Public Utilities and schools in the Issaquah and Seattle districts.

Beth Miller, Seattle Public Utilities storm water outreach and education planner, said the details for continuing the program remain undefined. The municipal utility is a longtime supporter of Salmon in the Classroom in Seattle schools.

“The big, imminent issue is trying to figure out how to make sure that those permits can get done so that everybody’s in compliance,” Miller said.

The timing of the decision to eliminate Salmon in the Classroom surprised teachers in the Issaquah School District and educators at almost 500 schools statewide.

Most participating teachers pick up salmon eggs in early January, and the decision to cut funding for the program left educators and students uncertain about the future.

In the end, Rickey and other teachers secured permits and received coho eggs from the Issaquah hatchery.

For students, salmon make ‘a huge impact’

Rosemary McPhail, a Sunset Elementary School third-grade teacher, started participating in Salmon in the Classroom 16 years ago.

“My daughter had actually participated in the program, and three years later she said to me, ‘Mom, this is the year our salmon come back,’” she recalled. “That really did it. Here, I had a middle schooler sitting here going, ‘My salmon are coming back.’ It was a huge impact for her and it made a connection for me.”

McPhail relied on grants from the Issaquah Schools Foundation and the Sunset Elementary PTA to cover start-up costs. Sunset students plan to release 250 salmon into Lewis Creek near the school March 31.

“I think it’s a great program and would love to see it continue, but it’s certainly meaningful to the students,” McPhail said. “I have kids that come back, and they’re in middle school or they’re in high school, and they stop by and they always talk about the salmon program.”

The program also sparks important conversations about science.

In the science room at Clark, fourth-grader Hannah Halstead, 10, and fifth-grader Caelan Varner, 11, conducted a pH test on the water in the aquarium. The conditions in the salmon environment require near-constant monitoring.

“It shows acid and how salmon can’t live in it,” fourth-grader Jackson Rubin, 10, said during the acidity test. “They will die.”

The team also minds the salmon school for food-hoarding bullies and “wimpies” — undersized fish struggling for food.

Soon, the classmates plan to release the salmon into Issaquah Creek and test the creek for pollutants.

“Hopefully, next year will be a great year like this year,” Jackson said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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