Zoo School: Where Education, Fun and Conservation Meet

The values of conservation can never be taught too early. Every young generation is challenged with finding solutions to repair the environmental damage caused by generations past and present—a tall yet essential task.

Fennec Foxes - The Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society

   Helping to spread the word of conservation is the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society. Apart from its everyday educational programs, the zoo operates a unique opportunity for third- to fifth-grade students in Palm Beach County School District Title I elementary schools called Zoo School. This weeklong, on-site school program, or extended field trip, literally takes the classroom to the zoo, where the zoo’s mission merges with the class’s curriculum.

   “We developed the Zoo School curriculum with daily lesson plans and activities to tailor to each class,” says Kristen Cytacki, director of education and sustainability. “We meet with the teachers before their visit to discuss whatever challenges the class might be facing, like math or writing, and then match that with a creative and engaging lesson that utilizes the zoo to help strengthen them in those key subject areas.”

North Grade Elementary School taking in the sights at the Palm Beach Zoo during their weeklong fieldtrip, Zoo School.

North Grade Elementary School taking in the sights at the Palm Beach Zoo during their weeklong fieldtrip, Zoo School.

   Zoo School began in the spring of 2013 with a small pilot program to gauge feasibility and student/teacher response. The zoo welcomed 138 students into the program that semester with such success that the program was green-lighted for entirety of the 2013-14 school year. Running concurrently with the county school calendar, Zoo School can viewed as a branch of the public school system: All lesson plans and activities are tailored to Common Core and Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine Standards, with a focus in STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The interdisciplinary curriculum also follows the scope and sequence for science followed by the school district throughout the year. Lesson plans and professional development pieces for teachers have been submitted and approved by the school district, making for dynamic learning opportunities for students and instructors.

   “Teachers can use the entirety of our curriculum or bring in their own lessons and activities,” Cytacki says, “though I would say 95 percent use ours. It’s very high quality and interdisciplinary.”

Zoo School at the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society - Dissecting an Owl Pellet

Zoo School students dissect owl pellets. Called “nature’s treasure chests” by Cytacki, this activity helps teach students about the physiology and anatomy of the birds of prey as well as a lesson in the food chain.

   “Animals can’t speak to us, so we have to observe them, and there is a lot that we can learn from what they leave behind,” Cytacki says. “[Students] are kind of like nature detectives.”

   The breakdown, though catered differently to each class, follows a similar routine: Students and teachers arrive at the zoo on a private charter paid for by the zoo, head to the on-site classroom and begin their day at Zoo School. Activities include dissecting owl pellets, visiting the state-of-the-art LEED-certified animal hospital to observe veterinarians in action, making animal observations and encounters, participating in role-playing activities and attending lectures with zoo staff. The curriculum covers plenty, with animals and environment peppered throughout coursework, but reading, writing and art are also incorporated into the activities. Students are pre- and post-tested so the zoo can monitor the knowledge gains achieved in the week on campus, while teacher evaluations help keep the program fluid and ever-evolving. Students are also given parent evaluation forms to take home, offering the zoo feedback that goes beyond the school program itself.

   “These give us insight in what the children are learning but also helps us get a better understanding of what families may or may not be doing to help the environment, like recycling, carpooling, buying organic food products,” Cytacki says. This information is vital to the development and evolution of the zoo’s overall programing and outreach, giving them new marks to aim for—an important tool for a zoo with Palm Beach’s geography.


Head to page two for more on the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society’s Zoo School.

   For all its work with conservation in the wild, the Palm Beach Zoo is an urban institution, with a population topping 1.3 million people within its market. But even with this expansive population, the annual attendance at the zoo comes in at more than 300,000, meaning not everyone is coming to the zoo.

    “Visiting the zoo is a luxury expense for a lot of people, and a lot of the kids that come to Zoo School have never been to the zoo before,” says Cytacki, who targets Title I schools for that reason. “It is really important to reach these kids, to show them the opportunity that you can have with wildlife and environment in terms of careers, but also in giving them a strong understanding that they play a very powerful role in keeping the environment healthy and clean.”

Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society - Zoo School

Third- to fifth-grade classes from Title I schools take over the Palm Beach Zoo’s education complex for a weeklong field trip that integrates the zoo’s mission with the class’s curriculum. Here, students listen as a zookeeper imparts a lesson on conservation efforts happening at the zoo.

    Upon completion of the parent evaluation forms, students are given four passes to the zoo so they can visit with their family. It’s not only a chance for the zoo to spread the word of its conservation mission to more visitors but also an opportunity for students to show off what they learned at Zoo School. “We feel the student has a special insight to the zoo and how it operates,” Cytacki says, “so this allows them to really share their experience.”

   From developing the curriculum to bussing and providing lunch for each student every day, the zoo pays for every aspect of Zoo School—a program that costs $4,000-$5,000 per week. The expenses are paid for through sponsorships, grants and donations.

   “Even though it is expensive, it is a very high quality, in-depth learning experience. And I promise you, if you ask these students in 20 years what they remember from elementary school, I think they will say Zoo School,” Cytacki says.

   It will likely be true for Haley Wade, a fifth-grader who visited visited Palm Beach Illustrated‘s office during “Take Your Child to Work Day” in March [read the Junior Journalist’s musings here]. When asked what she was learning in school, she responded with excitement about attending Zoo School in October. “We learned something every day … about the animals, what they do and what’s important about them,” she said. “I am much more aware of animals now and how I can help.”

Animal encounter at Zoo School - Palm Beach Zoo

In addition to the class’s school work, students have a chance to see the zoo’s animals up close and personal.

   Perhaps most amazing was how Haley, who attend ­North Grade Elementary School, discussed how much science was involved in the program—without realizing the educational components built into the activities. For example, each student created new signage for a specific animal that accompanies the exhibit. With a curriculum focused on the environment, adaptation, conservation efforts and the food chain, this entailed researching the animal, on top of determining the verbiage for the sign and designing art to give visual cues for visitors. This all-inclusive activity covered many aspects but didn’t feel like schoolwork.

   “That’s the beauty of the program,” Cytacki says. “It’s immersive.”

   All of this speaks primarily to school-based academics, but students are also exposed to what their studies ultimately translate into in the everyday world. For the most part, field trips are tightly regimented and scripted: They include a tour through a historical site, a guided nature walk conducting a geocaching activity or a lecture on an exhibition at a museum. Rarely do students get a chance to see professionals working at their craft unencumbered. One of the keystones of Zoo School is a trip to the Melvin J. and Claire Levine Animal Care Complex animal hospital, where the students can observe a working veterinarian clinic in action. This place, the first LEED gold-certified animal hospital in the United States, is not a staged portion of the tour—children may witness animals in quarantine or undergoing routine check-ups or emergency procedures. It’s an opportunity for students to see the subjects they are learning in the classroom—the foundations of biology—put into action.

Golden Tamarin - The Palm Beach Zoo - Zoo School

   May concludes the first full year of the Zoo School program, hosting 12 classes and reaching 244 area students in the process. The goal for the 2014-15 academic year is to reach 300 students, which will largely depend on scholarship funding. The long-term goal for Cytacki is to have multiple classes attending Zoo School every week—which, with 65 Title I elementary schools in Palm Beach County, would keep the Palm Beach Zoo staff pretty busy.

   “We would love to reach all the Title I schools in Palm Beach County,” she says. “If we could reach all of them, we’d have a full schedule.”

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