Kids thrive on warm, fuzzy curriculum

Students relax and learn life skills in school's pet-care therapy program

November 22, 2006|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

Cocoa, with her soft brown fur and fuzzy white tail, nuzzled into the crook of 15-year-old Walter Humpel's elbow and buried her face in his T-shirt.

"She hears all the noise, and it makes her a little scared," Walter explained as he stroked the back of his favorite rabbit's neck to calm her and make her feel safe.

Truth is, Walter said, spending time with Cocoa in the pet-care therapy center at High Road School in Dundalk helps him feel calm and safe, too.

"When you're here, you don't worry about what's happening," he said. "I come in here to get rid of the stress of home and school. I get to relax in here."

Directors at High Road School, which enrolls about 70 children with a range of emotional and developmental disorders in grades two to 12, opened the pet-care therapy center this fall after two of the school's social workers decided it would be an effective way to help students improve their social and communication skills.

The program is designed to teach children how to nurture and take responsibility for animals in the hopes of reducing behavioral problems, such as inappropriate displays of anger, that have interfered with their education, school officials said.

"It's a therapeutic environment," said Meghan Adams, one of the school's four social workers. "Physical contact is a big issue for a lot of our children. Here we can teach them about good touching, and they feel safe."

Staff and students spent several months, including some in the summer, painting murals of nature scenes in the pet-care center. The menagerie there includes guinea pigs, fish, turtles, lizards and hermit crabs. Many of the animals have been donated.

Students learn to care for the animals by taking turns feeding them and keeping their spaces clean.

Because students visit the center in groups, they also learn to socialize with one another and work together.

The school's eight teachers and 11 classroom assistants incorporate the pet-care center in their lessons. For instance, a class might research a particular animal's natural habitat and its needs, or a teacher may bring a group into the center and read from one of the dozens of animal-related books in the room.

High Road, which accepts students from Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, is state-funded through payments from the local school systems that send children to the facility. Classes are small, with a student-to-teacher ratio of about 5-to-1, said James Young, the school's director.

High Road - which has more than two dozen sites across the country, including a half-dozen in Maryland - caters to children with emotional disturbances such as depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some students are mildly retarded.

Others have autism, a neurological disorder that hinders development of verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Autistic children typically have difficulty with social interactions and leisure or play activities.

The school also enrolls students with Asperger's syndrome, which is considered a mild form of autism and is characterized by normal intelligence and language development, but deficient social and communication skills.

"The pet-care center is a very safe environment for them because if you make a mistake, the rabbits aren't going to talk back," said Danielle K. Peck, the school's senior director. "It has been great for their self-esteem."

Peck's assessment resonates with the students.

"It makes me feel more mature when I'm in here," said Walter, who came to High Road three years ago unable to control his anger. "It's also a motivation for me to stay good in school because you have to do good in school to come here."

Students earn time in the pet-care therapy center through a color-coded system that rewards positive classroom behavior. Walter is the only student who has reached the highest level of gold.

Sitting in the center with the soothing sounds of a waterfall trickling in an artificial pond, several students gathered in a circle to take turns holding Cocoa and playing with two guinea pigs, Side of Sugar and Hash Brown.

Nearby, a handful of hermit crabs ventured in and out of tiny shelters on the floor while Grace, one of two turtles at the school, amazed everyone as she darted swiftly around the hermit crabs.

"I look forward to going into the pet-care center," said Alishia Walker, 14, who enrolled at High Road about a year ago with a history of aggression and anger issues. "It makes me feel good about myself, and it makes me feel helpful. It makes me feel good that the animals depend on me."

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