In the back of Classroom 3 at Eagle Rock Elementary School stands a 400-pound green dinosaur.
The 20-foot-long, papier-mache brontosaurus helped the school win an educational award last year. But it was too large to remove from the classroom.
This year, the class studied whales and, according to their teacher, Barbara Ishida, they learned their lesson. They scaled down their project and, now, joining Freeway the dinosaur in the room is Seaway the humpback whale.
The black-and-white papier-mache creation weighs about 40 pounds, is 10 feet long and hangs in a corner of the room over a bookcase so that it is not in the way. There is enough room in the corner for the agile youngsters to climb up and be close to their not-so-blubbery pal.
For the last three months, the class of gifted third- and fourth-graders has been studying whales, Ishida said.
As part of their studies, the children spent time together in the library researching whales, going whale-watching in San Pedro and, of course, building Seaway.
The students also adopted a whale named Olympia as part of a project sponsored by the International Wildlife Coalition.
Ishida said that each year the class works on something that is pertinent to a special project the class is studying. She said the students get more out of it when they work together on the projects.
"It becomes a little more exciting for them if they have something big to work on with their hands," she said.
Ishida's program was cited last year by the state Department of Education, which named Eagle Rock one of 248 distinguished elementary schools in the state.
The class spent about three months working on Seaway, which is made of cardboard boxes, chicken wire and tissue. All 32 students in the class participated.
"The toughest part was stuffing all of that tissue into those little holes," said 10-year-old Dung Ma of Eagle Rock.
The class studied such whales as the Beluga, the California gray whale and the killer whale. Two weeks ago, the students presented memorized oral reports to about 400 parents and teachers, Ishida said.
Researching the various topics teaches the children how to use library references, she said.
Although the children said they were fascinated by all of the whales they studied, their choice of an individual favorite came down to aesthetics.
"I like the killer whale. It's not ugly like the other whales," 9-year-old Nicole Takai said.
But Nicholas Pattengale, also 9, felt differently. "The sperm whale is the best," he said. "I like the shape of its head."
In any case, all of the students love Seaway the humpback whale, even the scaled-down version.
Next year, Ishida said the class may study space.