Non-profit seeks to introduce animals in 100,000 classrooms.
When Ashley Aucar, a special education teacher at a public elementary school in the Bronx, was in the fifth grade, her teacher had pet snakes in the classroom. As a child, Aucar found the presence of the snakes inspiring and their impression stuck with her well into adulthood.
So it was a logical next step for Aucar to seek out a way to bring pets into her own 2nd and 3rd-grade bridge classrooms at Public School (P.S.) 94, where her students have different disabilities, ranging from speech, emotional, behavioral and intellectual disabilities.
She didn’t realize, though, that a quick Google search of “pets in the classroom” would lead her directly to Pet Care Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit foundation that offers grants to teachers. The money allows them to adopt or buy small classroom pets, or in some cases, to buy equipment and food to help support pets already in the classroom.
In the 2010-2011 school year, Pets in the Classroom provided 3,200 grants to elementary school teachers — ranging from pre-Kindergarten through sixth grade — across the United States. Last year, that amount grew to more than 6,000 grants in the 2011-2012 school year and the program opened up to seventh and eighth grade teachers.
And at the end of November 2012, Pets in the Classroom announced a new goal: within the next five years, Pets in the Classroom will provide vouchers for classroom pets or pet supplies to 100,000 classrooms, reaching 5 million children.
The impacts of having a pet in the classroom are varied but clear, says Pet Care Trust executive director Steve King.
“The reason for the program is to reacquaint kids with animals and to enhance the classroom environment,” King said in a phone interview. “We know from the hundreds of letters we get that it has made a tremendous difference in making the learning environment more interesting and we hope it means a new generation of pet owners.”
Aucar says the fish she purchased for her students at a pet store have been helpful in encouraging good classroom conduct.
“I incorporated the fish into our lessons by learning more about the fish that we were getting, and I even incorporated the fish into our behavioral expectations for our room, such as keeping our voices at a reasonable level because of the fish and not running around the room to keep our fish tank safe,” Aucar explained.
The students were all “super excited” about the fish, and interested in taking care of them, so it was an understandable disappointment when the fish died later this fall. But Aucar says that she plans to purchase more fish after the holiday vacations with her own money, since she has used up all of her $150 starting voucher on the supplies for the aquarium.
The Pet Care Trust can help teachers like Aucar bring pets into the classroom in a few easily accessible ways.
Teachers who teach pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade can first directly access the Pet Fund’s Web site and view the different grant options. They can request a rebate grant, making them eligible for up to $150 that they can put towards a classroom pet. If they want to get a small animal like a guinea pig or hamster, they are eligible for $100 — but the amount increases to $150 for an aquarium, reptile or an amphibian.
Teachers can then spend up to that amount at Petco, PetSmart and Pet Supermarket stores, with which the Pet Fund has partnerships, and then reimburse their receipts for payment.
Parents or other community members who know teachers that may want to bring a pet into their classrooms can also contact the Pet Care Trust with that teacher’s information and the foundation will then reach out to that teacher. Parents or other people also have the opportunity to sponsor, in part, a teacher’s initiative to bring a pet into the classroom through a partnership with Pet Care Trust.
“If an individual wants to adopt a classroom or help pay for a pet or supplies they can make a contribution and we will pass it on to a very specific teacher,” said King.
King says it has been tremendous to see the growth of the program, which first launched in 2009. A school in every state in the U.S. has received a grant and “we are just seeing a lot more activity, a lot more interest in the work that we are doing,” King said.
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