The Advocate

Zoo School: Celebrates 20 years of success

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Zoo School: Celebrates 20 years of success

Stills of students and scenery at the Zoo School. Photos by Sara Balter.

Stills of students and scenery at the Zoo School. Photos by Sara Balter.

Stills of students and scenery at the Zoo School. Photos by Sara Balter.

Stills of students and scenery at the Zoo School. Photos by Sara Balter.

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By Rukhshona Islamova – LHS News

Zoo School is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a brand new building in 2018. According to Dr. Patrick Hunter-Pirtle, the Zoo School’s administrator, the building will open and be ready for use during the second semester of the 2018-2019 school year. The new additions will include three science classrooms with lab space, and multiple classrooms for math, English and social studies. A large common area that is to be used for presentations, projects and research will also be apart of the new facility.

“Much of it is a shared facility with the Lincoln Children’s Zoo; however, during the school year, The Science Focus Program will have the highest access to it,” Dr. Hunter-Pirtle said.

Festivities surrounding the opening of the building are scheduled for next year and will include an anniversary celebration. In 1995, tension was building in the Lincoln Public School community. Some citizens, mostly parents, had been complaining about public schools and how they had become too liberal, according to Jim Barstow, the first Social Studies teacher and an early leader of the Zoo School. They claimed that schools were too large and very unsuccessful. To address these complaints LPS tried to come up with a more diverse selection of schools and opportunities.The idea of a performing arts high school was popular at the time, so LPS officials thought of creating something along the lines of a school devoted to music, drama, art, dance, etc. This would have seemed attractive to the best performing arts students, and then the new school would be stealing the other high schools’ best and brightest.

“The school board didn’t want to start that fight within the community, so that idea was put to bed,” Barstow said.

LPS kept looking for new ideas with the intention of creating a school with a partner, such as the Lied Center. Committees were set up to search for these types of opportunities and Executive Director of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, John Chapo was on one of these committees. While looking at different types of schools and partners, Chapo brought up the idea of the zoo. He suggested science, biology, and botany as just a few of the things they could focus on.

“At first the school board and committee scoffed at the idea,” Barstow said. “But when they looked into it deeper they realized how different and creative it would be.”

They decided to start a science focus program at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, and over the years this program has taken the name, “Zoo School.” This title has not always been the preferred nickname of the school. At one of the early board meetings for the school, Barstow was criticized for calling it that.

“I was at a meeting with the school board, along with some teachers and students,”  Barstow said. “I referred to it as the ‘Zoo School’ and was chastised by some of the board members.” They complained that it shouldn’t be referred to as Zoo School, because sometimes schools are called zoos due to the craziness, but the name stuck.

Some non-science focused classes that are offered at the Zoo School are Criminal Justice, History through Art, Creative Writing, Oral Communications, and math all the way up to AP Calculus. Botany, Zoology, Forensics, Genetics, and Animal Behavior are a few of the many science focused classes offered. Junior Colleen Arnold has been attending the Zoo School and Lincoln High since her freshman year of high school. Arnold chose to attend the Zoo School because she really enjoys science and thought it would be a perfect fit since it is in fact a science focus program. The fact that the student body and the small staff is so tight-knit is one of the reasons Arnold enjoys Zoo School. She also likes the fact that the classes aren’t like regular high school classes. Arnold’s favorite class is Environmental Studies taught by Mark James.

“I really like the teacher and his methods,” Arnold said. “We’re so small so we get to go to Wilderness Park at least once a week.”

“One of the most important elements of SFP is its sense of community,” Zoo School English teacher Dr. Beth Briney said. Briney has been a teacher at the SFP for the past 19 years and is the only member of the original staff.

“Students often are part of this program for 3-4 years, so we all become well acquainted with one another,” Briney said. “Because this is a small community, each individual plays an important role in what happens.  This creates a real sense of ownership and responsibility in the students.” Briney added.

The original staff consisted of Jim Barstow (social studies), De Tonack (math), and Sara Leroy Toren (science). The initial doubts surrounding the success of The Science Focus Program have definitely been crushed with the celebration of the 20th anniversary.

“A lot of things that you try to plan for as a teacher or as a student just don’t happen,” Barstow said. “But sometimes they get to a much better place than you ever thought they would.”



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