Group fishes for revival of Salmon in the Classroom program

August 9, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Liza Rickey (left), Clark Elementary School teacher, with fifth-graders including Aria Soeprono and Rebecca Ellis, watch as their coho fry swim away. By Greg Farrar

Like the miniscule fish reared in the program, Salmon in the Classroom could return.

Some clarity could come to the uncertain future after advocates for the program and state Department of Fish and Wildlife staffers meet in Olympia before the next school year starts. Still, questions remain about what organizations should be responsible for permitting and other issues.

State lawmakers’ decision to eliminate Salmon in the Classroom saved the cash-strapped state about $440,000 in the $32 billion 2011-13 budget. The state shifted federal dollars used for the program to other fish and wildlife efforts.

“It’s been a fantastic program. It’s been exciting for the agency to see all of these nonprofit organizations, individuals and teachers looking for ways to continue the program. That’s been exciting, because we have seen the value in the program,” said Christy Vassar, administrative operations program manager in the fish program at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It was unfortunate that the funding was eliminated.”

Clark Elementary School fourth- and fifth-grade students gathered along a muddy Issaquah Creek bank in May to release 162 fry. Months earlier, amid the January chill, the class started tending to 250 coho salmon eggs from the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery.

“They were very concerned when we released them, because they know they imprint on where they were born. So, they were very concerned they were going to imprint on our tank and not on the stream,” teacher Liza Rickey said in June as she packed up items in her Clark classroom to prepare for a move to Newcastle Elementary School. “We explained to them that they’re still young enough that they would imprint on where they’re releasing them.”

Craig Parsons discovered Salmon in the Classroom as son Elliott participated in the program at Bryant Elementary School in Seattle.

“When I heard about this program going away, I thought it was sort of something in my sweet spot for getting out and trying to get some people organized who also want to save it,” he said. “There’s a lot of those people.”

Now, Parsons leads a loose coalition of area educators, fish biologists and program advocates, including Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, in the Salmon Education Alliance.

“You know with the state funding situation, the cavalry is not coming for science, technology, engineering and math education anytime soon,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of bootstrapped by the people who care about it most.”

The group intends to develop a centralized curriculum, plus a website to explain how to facilitate the program.

Permitting is a hurdle for educators

Statewide, about 500 schools participate in Salmon in the Classroom during a typical year. Many schools in the Issaquah School District and elsewhere in King County receive eggs and support from the Issaquah hatchery. The state usually distributes 250 to 500 eggs per school.

“With those kinds of numbers, as far as additional work at our hatcheries, it really isn’t impacting any costs to the agency at that level,” Vassar said.

Questions about permitting also dominate discussions about the future of Salmon in the Classroom. The state requires permits for educators to rear and release salmon.

Past funding for Salmon in the Classroom included salaries for two and a half full-time employees to offer instructional assistance to teachers and to help educators secure the necessary permits. Teachers do not pay for the permits, although the process is challenging for newcomers.

“Somebody needs to figure out how to get the permitting process to continue, so that interested participating schools that are largely self sufficient in this process anyway can go about developing their curriculum for the fall knowing they’re going to have this program as a central part of their classroom curriculum,” Parsons said.

The department could also consider allowing a former teacher to use an existing permit at a different school, if the school holding the permit decided to not continue in the program. The question is important to Rickey as she considers setting up a tank and starting the program at Newcastle.

“It’s not just about kids getting to raise salmon,” she said. “It’s a much bigger picture of why are salmon important, how does that affect us, how does that affect our environment, how do we interact with our environment as a whole.”

The state funded Salmon in the Classroom using federal dollars and, as a result, officials and program participants said determining ownership of equipment, such as tanks and chillers, is difficult.

“Is it owned by the state? Is it owned by the federal government, because that’s where the funding came from to support the program?” Vassar said. “I’m still trying to determine that.”

The agency lacks funds and staffers to administer the program, so the Salmon Education Alliance is leading the push to determine how the permitting process can continue.

Participants also called for more streamlined permitting, so the process is easier for teachers and partners, such as FISH.

“What we’re waiting on is for DFW to figure out how the process is going to go from their end,” FISH Education Coordinator Celina Steiger said.

The impromptu civics lesson related to the Salmon in the Classroom cut seeped into other lessons at Clark.

Teachers used the cutback as a prompt for a year-end social studies essay. Students researched the topic, and then discussed possible benefits and reasons for elimination.

“They were very invested in this, because it affects them personally,” Rickey said. “It was a great vehicle for teaching them about our government, how things work and how our society works — and what is the difference between a right and the common good.”

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

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