Snakes and alligators, oh my! New Scholastic Academy gets off to a slithery start

Published 11:27 am Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Learning got very hands-on last week at Vicksburg Junior High School — for some students, anyway.

Rose, an elderly Eastern Indigo snake, visited the seventh- and eighth-grade science students enrolled in Scholastic Academy, the gifted junior high program being piloted this year in the Vicksburg Warren School District.

While most of the students were right there with their hands out, petting and stroking Rose, an endangered-species specimen, a few students, along with Warren Central Junior High School Principal Cedric Magee, kept their distance.

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Later, the kids had a chance to touch an American alligator. A small one.

And, on the advice of conservation outreach naturalist Jennifer Holcomb, whom the alligator bit several weeks ago, they kept their fingers on the gator’s ridged back.

“They tell us not to name the alligators because they want people to understand they are not pets,” Holcomb, of the Mississippi Science Museum, told the students.

Museum staff will conduct up to four free educational presentations per school per day for any school in the state, and reaches kids from kindergarten through 12th grade, Holcomb said.

“I loved it,” said Amanda Fuglaar, 12, a WCJHS seventh-grader. “I would have touched the snake but I wasn’t in the front row. I actually found one in my front yard the other day and touched it, and then when it moved I knew I probably should get away from it.”

In addition to the live specimens, Holcomb brought red fox, coyote, beaver and white-tailed deer pelts, the shell of a turtle, skulls of reptiles and the shed skin of a long, non-venomous snake.

The program helped initiate the first week of Scholastic Academy.

Scholastic Academy was approved by school board members in March, initially for 80 seventh-graders. In May, board members approved expanding the program to include eighth-graders and an additional four teachers.

A total of 132 students from the two junior highs — Vicksburg and Warren Central — attend academy classes, which are held in the Rosa A. Temple Annex of VJHS. Students will retain their school affiliation and will progress to the aligned high schools.

Vicksburg has 41 seventh graders and 24 eighth-graders enrolled, and Warren Central has 47 seventh-graders and 20 eighth graders. There are two teachers each for math, social studies, English and science.

Teachers use project-based, nontraditional methods in the four core subject areas, and have decided to assign themes to anchor their instruction and the students’ projects, said eighth-grade science teacher April Green.

Theme for the first nine week period is “Why Vicksburg?” Green said, and in science during the first few weeks students will focus on wildlife, technology advances and the contributions of senior citizens.

“We’ve had them explore wildlife in the Vicksburg area and do some reports on animals native to Vicksburg,” said seventh-grade science teacher Surrenda Davis.

History teacher Rebekah Drake said her seventh-grade students will study the prehistory of the area, learning about prehistoric cave murals and also the not-so-prehistoric murals at the Vicksburg city floodwall.

Students in English teacher Renee Chanell’s class have prepared presentations based on their summer reading list, which included the Civil War novel “Across Five Aprils,” by Irene Hunt, and Scott O’Dell’s “The King’s Fifth,” set in Spanish Conquistator-era North America.

The school day for academy students was extended by 70 minutes, so that students could have longer class periods — 70 minutes, versus the usual junior high period of 55 minutes — and round out their studies with two electives.

District officials have said Scholastic Academy classrooms will be technology rich and include iPads. On the low-tech end, Legos and other manipulatives also will be used, as research has shown they promote critical thinking and gifted development.

Thursday, VJHS acting Principal Antonio Cooper said scheduling kinks were being worked out, especially to accommodate the junior high-schoolers who made varsity sports teams over the summer. The practice period is at the end of the day, Cooper said, and is considered an elective.

“The kids will still get all their academic classes,” Cooper said.