THE CHALLENGE: How do you keep high school students interested and engaged while introducing them to a world of new career opportunities? The Papillion-La Vista (PLV) Zoo Academy program at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo takes a unique approach to non-traditional learning by getting kids out of the classroom and giving them the chance to get their hands dirty (literally and figuratively). The Zoo Academy proves that thinking outside the box about education can really pay off.
THE CHAMPIONS: The Papillion-La Vista School District Curriculum Team; Pat Purkhiser, science teacher for the Papillion-La Vista Zoo Academy, the only teacher at the original academy program; and Elizabeth Mulkerrin, director of education at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, all PLV Academy teachers.
THE SOLUTION: 12 years ago, a partnership was developed between the Papillion-La Vista School District and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. That partnership resulted in a half day academy program where, PLV science teacher Pat Purkhiser, a zoo volunteer, taught a daily course at the zoo in the area of science. Students taking this course were also able to gain shadowing experiences at the zoo. The Papillion-La Vista School District (PLSD) and the zoo had a vision that this one course could be so much more.
Through a focus on teaching 21st century skills, the partnerships between the PLSD and Omaha’s Henry Doorly zoo grew into an all-day academy program for PLSD students What started as one zoology course and career exploration was expanded in 2009 to become a multi-course “high school at the zoo” where 120 students gain real life work experience while still taking required coursework. In this non-traditional learning environment students join the Henry Doorly Zoo staff, working with the animals and learning about the different aspects of running a zoo.
One of the key benefits of such a unique program is its ability to engage students who may not be as comfortable in a traditional classroom setting. The program makes the curriculum relevant and makes it easier for the student to understand how what they’re learning will benefit them in their life after high school.
All of PLVs Academy programs follow a similar format and use shadowing as a primary teaching technique. In PLV’s Zoo Academy program students are assigned to shadow zoo employees in a given department or area. They help the employees complete their tasks while asking questions and learning at their own pace about what interests them most. One student was so interested by his experience with giraffes in the hoof stock area (animals with four hooves) that he dedicated his science fair project to creating a puzzle feeder that would help provide mental stimulation to the animals during the winter months.
After working in the zoo’s aquarium, another student has decided to major in marine biology in college. Though working with the animals is a favorite activity of the students, the Zoo Academy program maintains a full curriculum that includes English, Social Studies, Science and Math. By giving the students the opportunity to work as part of the zoo staff, they get exposed to myriad potential career paths.
From marketing to education, veterinary science to comparative nutrition, the learning opportunities are plentiful, and graduates enter their next life phase better prepared for the “real world.”
THE RESULTS: Ms. Mulkerrin admits that defining success for the Zoo Academy program is challenging because the results are so qualitative. Success means different things to different students. In some cases a student has gone on to work with animals, with many students opting to come back after graduation to work for the zoo. In other cases students who were interested in working with animals learned they had an even greater passion for graphic design or marketing instead.
The passionate teachers and advisors who run the PLV Academy programs believe that regardless of which path a student chooses, the work they do in the program helps build confidence and provide valuable guidance for their futures. Science teacher Mr. Purkhiser has worked to spread his passion for conservation to his classrooms as part of the Zoo Academy program. This past school year the students worked on a project to identify solutions to address the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a conglomeration of trash fished out of the ocean and said to be the size of Texas. This is just one example about how the students work to learn about and address real world issues.
Along with the Zoo Academy program, PLV’s Academy programs include: Athletic Training/Sports Medicine, College NOW Academy, Education Academy, Health Systems Academy, Law, Public Safety & Security Academy, Leadership Academy and a soon-to-be launched STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy.
The Papillion-La Vista team hopes to continue to grow their existing Academy programs, as well as to build additional partnerships in the community that can lead to other programs.
THE HOW-TO: Papillion-La Vista’s Academy programs are unique in their level of comprehensiveness. Each program started as one class and career exploration opportunities. Over time the programs have gone on to add additional coursework and – as in the case of the Zoo Academy program – built partnerships with organizations and businesses that have allowed for real-life career exploration
- For more information about the Academy Programs offered at Papillion-LaVista Public Schools, click here.