Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., is an admission free, 28-acre zoo with a small footprint but a big impact. Like many zoos and aquariums, summer is the busiest time of the year for the education team. It is not uncommon for summer camp programs to fill up by the end of February. In a traditional year, the education team transitions from busy summer programs to school field trips around Labor Day. But 2020 has been anything but traditional.
The Madison school district did not announce that they would be starting the school year virtually until mid-July. By that point, Henry Vilas Zoo’s education department had already run successful COVID-19 modified camp programs for half of the summer. And Conservation Education Curator Jess Thompson had already begun to think about what the Zoo could do to help the community as school started back up in the midst of a pandemic.
The logistics would take some time to figure out and the idea that became Zoo School wasn’t fully formed until mid-August, only two weeks before classes started.
“We keep saying this is an example of building the plane while flying it,” said Thompson. “We’ve faced the same challenges everyone is having with COVID—not knowing in advance what our timeline will be, scrambling to put a brand new program together, and learning new technology at the same time. We saw how tough it was on kids and parents during the spring, and really wanted to find a way to help our struggling community. We had been building a partnership with the Bayview Foundation, and thought this would be a good way to help them expand their reach and support their residents.”
The Bayview Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and supportive services to approximately 300 low income residents, primarily immigrants and refugees.
“Forging a partnership between two organizations that on the surface are very different from one another has revealed the underlying similarities between the two agencies,” said Bekah Barry, Bayview’s Elementary program coordinator, who worked closely with Henry Vilas Zoo to make this program a success. “We share a commitment to social justice and equity and supporting those in our community who have been historically marginalized.”
There are 21 students from six different schools and five grade levels enrolled in Zoo School. Nine Henry Vilas Zoo staff and three Bayview Foundation staff members help coordinate everything. In addition to the 780 hours of on ground classroom support, Zoo School serves over 315 meals each week. All 21 students are able to participate in this program free of charge including meals.
“This partnership between Bayview and the Henry Vilas Zoo shows that when different organizations work together and do their part, it can make a huge difference for our community, especially during a challenging time like this,” said Nate Schorr, community programs manager at the Bayview Foundation. “Through this work, Bayview children and families not only feel incredibly supported, but also feel that the Zoo is a place they can call their own.”
Henry Vilas Zoo turned their only onsite restaurant into a makeshift classroom, building student cubbies and creating socially distanced work stations where each student can sign on to their virtual classroom. They transformed the Zoo’s Discovery Center, a 2,000 square foot learning center into a second classroom. Zoo School gives students a safe place to focus on learning, provides healthy meals and snacks, and allows students to participate in additional animal encounters and education programs throughout the school week.
Not everything has gone smoothly. From a last minute scramble to get meals for the kids when the USDA rules changed less than a week before school began, to juggling 21 different Zoom schedules, the staff have had to get creative.
The education team at Henry Vilas Zoo is no stranger to being flexible.
“It’s part of the job description,” Education Manager, Heather Merewood said. “Every education program we offer has to be flexible. You can have an entire day planned out around a seal encounter only to show up that morning and find out a seal needs an emergency tooth extraction or something and you just have to make it work.”
In spite of the challenges, the rewards have been noticeable.
“Seeing the connections the kids have made with some of our animals has been one of the most rewarding parts of this whole experience,” said Merewood. “We have a kiddo who loves snakes and is always asking to visit her friend ‘Cookie’ the Cook’s Tree boa. She has learned the word ‘herpetologist’ and thinks our Herpetarium keeper has the coolest job in the world.”
The students have mostly adjusted to their new way of schooling.
“Life is life, and you just have to roll with it,” said nine-year old Brian, who is a 4th grader. He admits the hardest part of virtually schooling is listening during his Zoom classes, but lit up when talking about his favorite part about being at the Zoo.
“Learning about the animals and feeding the goats is the best part about Zoo School. I also really like getting help with my homework.”
Leslie, a second grader, is more direct.
“The hardest part about Zoo School is that it’s going to end,” she said.
It’s easy to see why the students are thriving. Many have become virtual stars in their classrooms. One classroom looks directly into the polar bear exhibit and students have been able to share polar bear Berit with their virtual classmates. The second classroom is surrounded by poison dart frogs, snakes, and a variety of insects.
It’s gratifying for Zoo School instructors to know that some students who didn’t show up for a single virtual class in the spring are now connecting with their teachers every day and completing all their homework assignments.
“Some of the kids have told me that they would just be at home playing video games if they weren’t here at the Zoo,” said Instructor, Darcy Gilbertson. “At the end of the day, it’s not about how often you log into Seesaw, it’s about making sure kids feel supported. You can see these kids becoming resilient humans.”
Jess Thompson thinks that 2020 may reshape education programs in AZA zoos and aquariums going forward.
“This year has sharpened our focus on reaching members of our community who may be struggling the most. Our communities are recognizing this incredibly important role that zoos and aquariums play not only as outdoor education centers, but as community centers and sanctuaries for our guests from the outside world.”
Franklin Elementary Principal, Sylla Zarov, agreed.
“We are beyond grateful for this partnership and hope that once we return to face to face school, we continue the strong partnership with the Henry Vilas Zoo that has formed during this time.”
Having the same kids coming to the Zoo everyday has helped put many of the challenges from this year into perspective.
“It’s easy to get wrapped up in what we have lost,” said Henry Vilas Zoo Executive Director, Ronda Schwetz. “But in a year full of challenges, this has been the bright spot for all of us.”
Kristin Moala is the marketing and outreach manager at Henry Vilas Zoo.