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Zoo School ‘stays exciting’ after first 50 years

Students count snow leopards, lions, caimans among classmates

Grand Rapids — Blink and you might miss it a cluster of classrooms tucked away in the administrative building at John Ball Zoo — but there’s high-intensity learning going on at Zoo School, in those rooms and beyond. 

The sixth-grade theme school celebrated its 50th anniversary in fall 2023, and its walls are adorned with keepsakes and treasures from the past five decades: photos, rocks collected and painted by students, Broken Paddle Awards given to students who endure minor mishaps while canoeing, and more. 

It’s all a testament to the uniqueness of the school, which seems primed for another half century of success.

During a recent visit, a group of six “Zooies,” as they’re called, led SNN on an impromptu tour of the massive John Ball campus that doubles as their learning space.

It was a frigid day, and the zoo itself was closed to the public, but students get year-round access to it — a perk the Zooies never tire of.

‘It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. … Not a lot of kids get to do this.’

— Luna Harz

A Student-led Expedition

Stopping to visit reptiles, monkeys, armadillos, snow leopards, lions, penguins and more, the students’ excitement was constant as they darted through the grounds with giddy abandon.

“Mountain lions are actually pretty interesting,” said Callie Hill, who declared herself an expert on the subject thanks to a recent assignment. 

“They’re really smart,” she said, explaining that mountain lions expand their range to find water when there’s a drought, but they never forget how to get back.

“It’s really cool to learn about them and how they’re a lot different from a lot of different animals at the zoo.”

There’s no need for maps, as the Zooies know their way around. Callie, Ruby Hayne and several of their classmates have had the privilege of being Junior Zookeepers, which gives them a look behind the scenes as well.

The experience is a reward for good behavior, and it allows students to tend to animals alongside professional zookeepers.

Callie enjoyed working with the bongos, a type of forest antelope.

“We made their food … and we got to feed them by hand. It was really fun,” she said.

Ruby chimed in to say that being a Junior Zookeeper helped her overcome a fear of crickets, which she had to face when preparing meals for the zoo’s tortoises.

“It kind of gets you to get used to them after a while, and realize that they’re harmless, and that they’re pretty important to the animals’ food chain,” she said.

During a spare moment between visits to porcupines and golden eagles the students answered a pressing question: Does the zoo ever lose its luster, or does it stay exciting?

Without hesitating, the group responded in unison: “It stays exciting!” 

Why Zoo School?

Being a Zooie is a point of pride often passed from one generation to the next, according to Jill Whitcomb, an instructional paraprofessional who helps oversee day-to-day operations. 

Whitcomb was a Zooie, her daughter was a Zooie, and she said she hears it all the time from students: “My mom was a Zooie! My dad was a Zooie!”

What is it about the school that generates so much loyalty and pride?

“It’s the uniqueness of the program,” Whitcomb said.

Curriculum incorporates not only John Ball Zoo, but all of John Ball Park. Coursework extends throughout, and includes zoology, biology, forestry, chemistry and physics. Hands-on activities like animal feeding, raising salmon, navigating trails, water sampling, canoeing and camping are Zoo School staples.

Whitcomb said the program is a chance to take ownership of one’s educational experience. Her own time as a Zooie had a major impact when she was in sixth grade.

“I accepted the idea that what I put into my education is what I’m going to get back out of it,” she said.

The school’s lesson comes at a crucial time, during that “turning point year” between fifth and seventh grades, when students are just starting to acclimate to mounting responsibility and academic pressure, noted Whitcomb.

Up to 60 Grand Rapids Public Schools students are accepted annually to spend their sixth-grade year at the school — and applications for 2024-25 are open now — but the workload isn’t for everyone.

“It’s hard, it’s fast-paced, the homework is two hours a night,” Whitcomb said. But, she said, it has its rewards.

Taking Hold

Those who make it get to “take hold” of their education, said Whitcomb, and the payoff takes different shapes for different students.

For Nolan Paasche, the difficulty is what makes the school special.

“I like it because it’s a nice, hard challenge,” Nolan said.

Callie has spent the year building skills for her future, learning “a lot of different things I’ll use for a while, in the years to come.”  

Ruby said she’s conquered more than just a fear of crickets in her time as a Zooie.

“What I really like about Zoo School is that it’s a small building, but that makes it easier to have relationships with everyone,” she said. “There’s a lot of friendly people here. I have some social anxiety, so it kind of helped me overcome (that).”

Each of the students seemed to agree that becoming a Zooie was something they couldn’t pass up.

Luna Harz might have hit the nail on the head.

“It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “Not a lot of kids get to do this.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Students cap school year with ‘super-fun’ camping expedition
Nudging educators into the great outdoors

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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