Student Justin Risica, left, learns about beluga whales from trainer Justin Richard at Mystic Aquarium with in Mystic, Conn., Wednesday, October 20, 2004. Risica is one of eight participants in an alternative high school program at the aquarium.
AP Photo/Jessica Hill
At first, 15-year-old Sarah Lenney was nervous. Her partner, 17-year-old Stephen Furlong, admits it's something he never thought he would do in school. But they break into devilish grins as they explain their work.
"It was kind of gross yesterday, because we had to touch it with our hands," Furlong laughs, pointing to containers filled with chloroform-scented fish parts.
Instead of a traditional classroom setting, high school students participating in the alternative education program at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration are getting a hands-on learning experience alongside beluga whales, seals and other marine life.
The fish are being ground up to allow scientists to analyze their caloric, fat, ash and moisture content to help the aquarium establish the proper diet for its marine life.
"They may think they're doing this just for their own benefit to learn, but I'm actually using them to get the method up and running," said Lisa Mazzaro, a researcher who oversees the lab.
The program participants eight students from several different school districts _ don't have behavior problems, but have not been able to grasp reading, writing and math. Most are substantially behind in credits. Before coming to Mystic, some were at risk of dropping out.
"I call them my square pegs in a round hole," said Natalie Pukas, superintendent of North Stonington schools, which operates the program with Mystic. "They are the kids that have the ability to succeed, they have the talent to succeed. But somewhere, they've lost the will and the motivation, or we failed to meet their needs."
The school day starts later, at 9 a.m., giving students more time to get out of bed and get to class. Afternoons are spent at the aquarium, where students work as staff interns in the aquarium's departments for animal care, public education, food service, human resources and lab research. They also move through online distance learning courses at their own pace.
"We tell them they are the captains of their own ship," said teacher Cheryl Biekert, a 19-year special education veteran who runs the program. "They really are in charge of their destiny here."
One student, 16-year-old Natalie Browne, attended summer school several times, but earned only enough credits to be a sophomore. She hopes to graduate with her regular high school class next year.
"I love it," she said, after a half-hour session learning about beluga whale behavior. "It's so different because we work independently, and there's nobody breathing over my shoulder."
Deborah Browne said her instinct told her that her daughter just needed a different way to learn.
Costing $120,000 for the first year, district officials hope to eventually expand the program.
Back in the lab, Lenney and Furlong carefully weigh samples of lipids and record the numbers in a log. There's a lot of work to do before tomorrow.
The next task: analyzing penguin blood.
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