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Trout in the Classroom teaches city students about nature

Third-graders in Culver City raise and release the fish and learn about their behaviors and life cycle.

March 09, 2009|Catherine Ho

When they're first born, they're scared of their mom and dad.

No sooner had those words left Jim Solomon's mouth than the horrified cries of 35 third-graders crescendoed in unison:

"Whaaaat?"

"It's because they might eat them," he explained.

Parents gobbling up their young was all but unthinkable to 8- and 9-year-olds that February morning. But Solomon, of the Santa Monica Wilderness Fly Fishers, spoke their language. Trout in the Classroom, a nationwide program that brings the art of raising trout to city classrooms, resonates with students by translating trout terms into kid-speak: A fly is the trout's steak sandwich. Pectoral fins are their car brakes. Ants are their chocolate cake.

The program gives third-graders at Linwood E. Howe Elementary in Culver City a lesson in trout anatomy and life cycle, from the time the trout are eggs fresh from the San Joaquin hatchery until their release into the wild. During the three-month journey, the students keep trout journals documenting the fish's size and appearance and take turns taking home and caring for a trout plush toy named Rainbow.

Last Friday, 93 giddy third-graders transported three rainbow trout fry -- baby fish -- from a tank in their classroom to the icy waters of Piru Creek in Los Padres National Forest. Against a backdrop of green mountains, they huddled over the white Ace Hardware bucket carrying the tiny trout, each no longer than 1 1/2 inches, and cheered as the fish took the plunge into the creek.

"Go, fish, go! Go, fish, go!" they chanted in unison.

Trout in the Classroom is taught in schools nationwide, including in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. In Culver City, it began 15 years ago when Solomon, a lifelong fisherman, launched the program for his son's fifth-grade class. At its peak, the program was taught at seven schools in Culver City and Santa Monica. The number has since dwindled to two: Linwood E. Howe and El Marino Language School.

Although only four or five of every 100 fertilized eggs survive to become fry, hundreds of trout have been raised in classrooms and released over the years.

Solomon and third-grade teacher Lisa Schnauss have pushed hard to keep the tradition afloat. Solomon lectures the classes about trout behavior. He's been studying the topic since his mother first dropped him off at the Long Beach pier with a lunch bucket and a pole. Schnauss has transformed her classroom into trout central: Walls are covered with trout posters; framed trout sketches lean against bookshelves; a 3 1/2 -foot stuffed trout toy slumps over a file cabinet.

Since receiving the batch of fertilized trout eggs in late December, Schnauss painstakingly cared for the delicate fish, adjusting the water temperature, keeping the tank clean and feeding them. Of the 50 eggs they started with, only three made it to Piru Creek.

"It's hard to mimic nature," she said.

Part of a teaching philosophy called service learning, the program aims to broaden students' perspective beyond classroom walls. The equipment is donated by the Santa Monica Wilderness Fly Fishers, and the $1,700 for the school buses up to Piru Creek comes from grants from the Culver City Education Foundation.

Three months of hands-on education trains the children to be fluent in trout. Students who completed the program years ago can still rattle off fish facts without blinking an eye. But as they crowded near the edge of Piru Creek on Friday, the rims of their Dodger baseball caps bumping as they jostled their way to a prime viewing spot, it was clear they're still city kids at heart.

Watching the water swiftly sweep fallen leaves downstream, 8-year-old Julia Martin said: "It's like a freeway!"

--

catherine.ho@latimes.com

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