FAIRFAX – There are trout in a Bellows Free Academy – Fairfax classroom and, if its students have anything to say about it, there will continue to be trout in a BFA – Fairfax classroom.
When sixth graders from BFA-Fairfax recently learned Gov. Phil Scott’s budget proposal included shutting down the fish hatchery in Salisbury, Vt., as a means to cut costs, they reacted in force, starting a letter campaign to discourage the closure that, according to organizers for the Trout in the Classroom program, threatened to take the students’ trout out of the classroom.
Trout in the Classroom, a statewide program that, just as its name suggests, brings trout into a classroom, letting students raise Vermont’s official state fish, the brook trout, from eggs to fingerlings as a class and, in the process of doing so, study everything from water quality and conservation to a fish’s life cycle.
Students test for chemical levels in the water, mapping the amount of nitrates and nitrites and everything in between to learn when to treat their tanks. They measure out the amount of each chemical needed to treat the water, exercising mathematical skills – like using ratios – in the process.
They share that data – taken daily – on a blog also maintained by the students, where they also contribute with a weekly write-up on their program and include photos they’ve taken.
“Anytime you can make an authentic learning opportunity, it’s important,” BFA sixth grade science teacher Melinda Carpenter said. “Just that hands on piece of it helps so much.”
Students also write about their trout rearing experience creatively.
Carpenter shared one story with the Messenger, a comic about a murder mystery where the circumstances, at least according to its starring trout detective, seemed “fishy.” “Some of the student perspectives… are just phenomenal,” Carpenter remarked.
The students also appear to grow attached to the program, with Carpenter noting that seventh- and eighth-graders previously involved with the program regularly visit their sixth grade counterparts’ school of fish.
The program sources eggs from the Salisbury fish hatchery, meaning the hatchery’s closure could leave eggs “unobtainable” for the program, Trout in the Classroom coordinator Bob Wible told the Messenger’s sister publication, the Milton Independent, last February.
The idea of losing their trout didn’t sit right with BFA’s sixth graders.
“When we heard that the hatchery was going to close, it would mean, potentially, we wouldn’t be able to get fish anymore,” said BFA sixth grader Rowan Albee. “That’s one of the main things that starts them off when they’re young.”
So, the students organized.
Students began a letter-writing campaign, sending letters to their representation in the Vermont statehouse – Fairfax independent Rep. Barbara Murphy and Republican state senators Corey Parent and Randy Brock – and even to Gov. Phil Scott himself, asking him to rearrange the budget to keep Salisbury open.
“I am writing to you because the Salisbury VT trout hatchery could close with Governor Phil Scott’s new proposal to close the hatchery to cut the budget for next year,” wrote sixth grader Spencer Hartwell to Sen. Brock. “I am personally not happy with this because my brother is a grade below me and I want him to have the experience of raising trout through the Trout in the Classroom project.”
Their letters decried the loss of an educational opportunity and the possibility of damaging fish populations in Vermont, the latter being an opinion shared by conservation groups and even the Commissioner of Vermont’s Fish & Wildlife Department, according to a Vermont Public Radio article published in February.
Two of those representatives – Murphy and Parent – replied, with Murphy connecting Carpenter to resources at the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and Parent visiting the school to encourage those students to continue making their voices heard.
“I didn’t realize there was a program that went to so many schools across Vermont to provide these fish eggs to classrooms,” Parent said in an email to the Messenger. “I think it definitely allowed me to see the value well beyond just a fish hatchery – it’s a valuable educational opportunity for Vermont students.”
The students’ movement spread outside of their own classroom, too.
Two sixth graders – Hydie Gallagher and Zebediah “Zeb” Wilcox – hung posters around the school, calling on their community to “help save Vermont trout” and sharing a QR code linked to their Trout in the Classroom blog.
Some of their biggest support came from students two grades below them.
“[The sixth graders] said we wouldn’t be able to do it when we got to sixth grade,” BFA fourth grader Millie Plog said, joining the sixth graders during their interview with the Messenger.
The students recently heard good news, as well.
They learned they weren’t alone, as many of the other classes participating in Trout in the Classroom had fired up their own letter-writing campaigns to preserve the Salisbury hatchery and – by extension – their Trout in the Classroom program.
The students also learned that theirs and those other schools’ campaigns may have been successful, as the Vermont House of Representatives’ proposed budget currently includes provisions for keeping the Salisbury fish hatchery open until at least 2022.
Upon hearing that latter piece of news from Parent on Monday, the kids were reportedly ecstatic.
“We’ve learned we can actually do something,” Albee said. “Being sixth graders, sometimes we don’t always think we could do much, but we wrote letters and it got added back to the budget.”
“They realized they had more of a far-reaching effect,” Carpenter said. “It’s just really exciting and, really, it’s empowering.”
BFA-Fairfax is only one of several schools in Franklin County participating in the Trout in the Classroom program. Schools in Bakersfield, Fairfield, Georgia, Highgate and both St. Albans City and Town participate, as does the Cold Hollow Career Center in Enosburgh and Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and High School in Swanton.
H. 542, the House’s budget bill that currently funds the Salisbury fish hatchery, awaits review in the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations.
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