KENNETT SQUARE—There's something fishy going on at Pocopson Elementary School in the Unionville Chadds Ford School District. It's also happening at Greenwood Elementary School in Kennett, Nottingham Elementary School in Oxford, and hundreds of other schools all across the Commonwealth. It's something called "Trout in the Classroom," (TIC) an outdoors oriented learning program currently enjoying huge popularity in educational circles. At Pocopson it's a part of a curriculum that's coordinated by a trio of fifth grade teachers - Ryan Stephens, Andy Lefko, and Dave Lichter, themselves all avid freshwater fishermen.
This year's six classes of fifth graders, about 130 students in all, participated in the Pocopson program. "The Trout in the Classroom program has become an integral part of our science curriculum's ecosystem unit," explained Stephens, a twenty year veteran teacher at the school. "It's a great way to educate the kids about coldwater resources and the importance of protecting outdoor habitats. We get our brook trout eggs each year from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's (PF&BC) hatchery in Benner Springs near Bellfonte. After that it's on us to raise and release them."
When the Pocopson teachers first initiated the program in 2013, they were required to attend the PF&BC's full day training program. "They taught us tank maintenance, trout life cycle expectations, water quality issues, and the importance of keeping water cold enough, between 52 and 54 degrees," said Stephens. "And they emphatically stressed the fact that this is NOT a stocking program; it's an education program."
The program kicks off in early November when the school takes possession of about 250 to 275 brook trout eggs from the hatchery. In about six weeks, sometime after Christmas, the baby trout emerge from the eggs and then are transferred from the "egg baskets" into the 55 gallon aquarium. "The trout then reside in the coldwater tank which is on display in the hallway of the fifth grade wing," said Lefko. "That way the kids can check them out and watch them growing every single day."
"The Valley Forge Chapter of Trout Unlimited sends us a check for $150 each year to help cover the costs of yearly supplies like filters, gravel, fish food, and other components," noted Stephens. "Our PTO was instrumental and generous in providing funding for the tank, filter, and chiller when the program began in 2013 and they continue to support us as needed."
"The TIC program culminates with Trout Release Day when every fifth grader at the school reports to Pocopson Creek to release their trout," Stephens added. "It's a great day for the kids. We always schedule it in late March or early April when, unfortunately, we're up against spring break and state testing."
When the big day arrived I happened to be fishing on Pocopson Creek and found myself in the midst of Pocopson's Trout Release Day festivities with swarms of frenetic fifth graders lining the banks releasing trout, catching frogs, observing nesting geese, and reconnecting with Mother Nature in general. As Stephens, Lefko, and Lichter supervised the activities, PF&BC Waterways Conservation Officers Andy Desko and Thomas Benevento (along with Trout Unlimited Program Partner Dave Dickens, Sr.) were also on hand to instruct and educate the young students about the event and the natural resources associated with it. Throughout the morning a drone operated by Pocopson Building Technician Noah Krey hovered overhead while capturing video footage of the day's activities.
Stephens explained that Trout Release Day encompasses a multi-faceted program that consists of five centers which include elements of the ecosystem unit: the streamside trout release, a fly tying demonstration, storytelling, art projects, and beekeeping. Of course the highlight for most of the kids is the trout release itself at Pocopson Creek, not much more than a stone's throw from the school building. Stephens added that there is typically a very high mortality rate for these trout. This year, of the 250 or so eggs, just about 50 fingerlings survived to be released. In past years more than 100 or so have made it that far. "Many of the kids give names to their designated trout before they release them," smiled Lefko.
Fifth grader Lucy Weeber was among them, releasing her trout, aka "Goliath Junior," that morning. "Trout Release Day taught me a lot about nature and how we need to protect it," she said. "I especially liked the bees and the storytelling part of the day and being down by the stream."
Weeber's fellow fifth grader, James Benner, who released a trout dubbed "Todd," was equally enthusiastic about the day. "My favorite part was definitely about releasing the trout and learning about the life cycle of the brook trout which is the only trout native to Pennsylvania and also the official state fish," he noted.
"Our Trout in the Classroom program is unique in that the kids get to see the entire process from egg to fry to fingerling to release," added Lichter. "That's an up-close and personal experience that makes it special and very different from textbook science."
Dave Dickens, Sr. of the Valley Forge Chapter of Trout Unlimited serves as program partner for Pocopson Elementary School along with thirteen other Chester County Schools from elementary through high school, grades four through twelve including Greenwood in Kennett, Nottingham in Oxford, and Downingtown West High School. "Once a school has completed one full year in the Trout in the Classroom Program, Valley Forge TU then donates $150 to each school every year to help pay for consumables like fish food and filters," he said. "At the start-up stage, each school contributes around $1200 to $1500 to fund the cost of materials needed to initiate the program.
"There are currently 393 schools statewide in Pennsylvania now participating in Trout in the Classroom, up from 275 last year," Dickens said. "That kind of data indicates that teachers are realizing what a fabulous hands-on learning opportunity this program represents, especially for elementary age children, and they're taking advantage of it."