Cash-Strapped Schools Rear Lab Animals

Schools are doing anything they can to cut costs. Educators in Oakland, Calif., will spend the summer raising their own lab animals. It's much cheaper than buying them.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In the recent California budget battle, schools were hit especially hard. So this summer, districts are considering a range of cost-cutting measures: increasing class size, cutting expensive programs and closing entire schools.

Well, Youth Radio's Austin De Rubira reports on the unusual way Oakland schools are adapting their science program to the tough economic times.

Unidentified People: Oh, my god.

AUSTIN DE RUBIRA: In Miranda Carrow's Chabot Elementary classroom one day, just before the end of the school year, four third-graders huddled around a plastic tray poking, prodding and observing a couple of feisty crayfish.

Unidentified Child #1: My favorite part is the pinchers.

Unidentified Child #2: My favorite part is the pinchers.

Unidentified Child #3: Probably pinchers.

Unidentified Child #4: My favorite part is the egg part from the females.

DE RUBIRA: But their favorite subject is crayfish mortality. Earlier this year, two of the animals escaped, only to be found the next morning dried out and dead. It was high drama for Kate Gross-Whitaker(ph) and her friends.

Ms. KATE GROSS-WHITAKER: Some kids who were sitting near it said, look, there's a crayfish, and, like, half the class ran over there. And then later we found one hidden between the bookshelf and the cabinets over there.

DE RUBIRA: Do you think science is fun?

Ms. GROSS-WHITAKER: Yeah.

DE RUBIRA: But that fun is expensive. A single crayfish costs two bucks if you buy it from a supply house, as most schools do. A district the size of Oakland can pay $80,000 for a year's supply of animals for elementary schools.

So in a desperate, cost-cutting move, Oakland school officials have squeezed that figure down to $8,000 not by skimping on the critters, but by raising their own.

Mr. CALEB CHEUNG (Science Administrator, Oakland Unified School District): So we have several 55-gallon fish tanks with live plants and guppies.

DE RUBIRA: That's Caleb Cheung, the district's science administrator.

Mr. CHEUNG: Here, we're breeding trays of aquatic snails. We have several trays of mealworms down here. We have night crawlers and pill bugs, which are sometimes called rolly pollies.

DE RUBIRA: Cheung's in charge of this modest zoo, housed in a former Army warehouse in east Oakland. He'll spend the summer looking after the animals. And when school starts again, he'll deliver them to the classrooms, where they'll become the subjects of experiments and lesson plans.

Mr. CHEUNG: The program is very unique in that it doesn't mainly consist of textbooks, and the students get to experience science hands-on.

DE RUBIRA: It turns out, students remember a lot more when they do science rather than just read about it. But California's budget shortfall has jeopardized state money for education, putting programs like this at risk.

Professor NORTON GRUBB (Education, University of California Berkeley): If we weren't raising the live organisms, I don't think it would be sustainable as a district.

DE RUBIRA: Norton Grubb, a professor of education at the University of California Berkeley, says it's always like this in a budget crisis: Resource-heavy subjects are the first to go.

Prof. GRUBB: Subjects like music, art, history, science, all of those get less resources. They're not part of the core.

DE RUBIRA: Grubb says while Cheung's do-it-yourself operation shows ingenuity, it also reveals the extreme measures many school officials go to when trying to preserve their programs.

Prof. GRUBB: When district officials or school teachers start doing things like raising their own lab animals, it means that they're not spending time on other aspects of instruction.

DE RUBIRA: But science educators like Caleb Cheung know that if instruction is left to textbooks, fewer school kids will ever know the drama that unfolds through hands-on study of living organisms - and dying ones, too.

For NPR News, I'm Austin De Rubira.

SIEGEL: And that story was produced by Youth Radio.

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