Zoo educator Shannon Heimer shows "Holly" the hedgehog to kids during Happy Hollow Park & Zoo's education program at the zoo in San Jose. The zoo also has an education van which is regularly packed up with animal ambassadors and tactile materials like skulls, talons and quills, and visits hundreds of schools in Santa Clara County throughout the year. The Life Sciences curriculum, designed by education staff, is thoughtfully aligned to California state education standards, so the pre-K to 3rd grade programs are highly sought after.
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(Patrick Tehan / Mercury News)
It's a fall afternoon just before Halloween and an eighth-grade class at San Jose's Peter Burnett Middle School has trooped into the school's library-media center for a special presentation.
At the back of the room, Shannon Heimer, education manager at Happy Hollow Park & Zoo, is keeping her surprises for the students under wraps. Under a table are Spike the prehensile-tailed porcupine, Lucille the ball python, the ferrets Dakota and Polo, Violet the emperor scorpion and Celestia the hoary bat. It is, Heimer says, her "creepy, crawly" group of animals from Happy Hollow perfect for the Halloween season.
Zoo educator Shannon Heimer shows "Holly" the hedgehog to Aryan Janolkar, 9, left, and Ian Wong, 8.
(Patrick Tehan / Mercury News)
This traveling zoo is part of Happy Hollow's outreach education program. Heimer and her staff visit more than 200 schools a year in Santa Clara County, and reach many at-risk students by visiting family homeless shelters and soup kitchens throughout the area.
The visits are not designed to be just a fun diversion for the kids although there is lots of fun involved. The Life Sciences Curriculum designed by the Happy Hollow staff is aligned with California state education standards and offers a range of programs, from one that shows the differences between mammals, reptiles and birds, to one that discusses life in the rain forest.
"For many years, the outreach programs offered by Happy Hollow supplemented the science curriculum in local elementary school classrooms," Heimer says "But these days, teachers have been challenged to do more with less.
"In many instances now, our programs are the only science curriculum students receive."
While some schools can pay for the visits out of their budgets, many cannot. Happy Hollow has a "scholarship fund" to cover the costs of the educational presentations for schools that qualify and for the family shelters and soup kitchen visits. But with budget cuts hitting so many schools, demand for scholarships is now far greater than Happy Hollow can accommodate.
That is where Wish Book readers can help.
The cost for a classroom or shelter visit for a small group is $140 for the first program and $125 for each subsequent visit. For larger assemblies up to 200 students the cost is $325 for the first time and $275 for each return. A donation of as little as $25 would give as many as eight students one opportunity to interact with animals from the zoo and learn valuable lessons about the world around them.
"I am so lucky to have Happy Hollow here," says Burnett Middle School librarian Vanessa Minshull, who arranged Heimer's visit to her school, which is located near Japantown. "Our student population is such that they don't get out and about, don't get the kind of school trips that schools used to have.
"This also teaches our kids about the world. Many simply don't have much experience with nature, living in an urban environment."
The 50-year-old Happy Hollow combines an accredited zoo, rides for kids and an educational center on a 16-acre site within Kelley Park on Senter Road.
As Heimer starts to show off her animals at Burnett Middle School, the eighth-graders try to act cool as they meet Spike, Dakota and Polo. Heimer knows the entertainment value of the animals, but she also deftly drops in facts about the creatures and how they benefit our environment. Soon, the students are eagerly asking questions: Can a porcupine really throw its quills? How does a snake shed its skin?
Heimer guides them along, making points about living with the animals, and passing around animal skulls, talons and quills for them to touch and feel.
By the time Violet the scorpion and Celestia the bat appear, the kids have abandoned any attempt at nonchalance, and there is much oohing and ahhing as they get up close and personal with the creatures. When Celestia rouses herself from daytime sleep to stretch her wings, the students jump up from their chairs to take a closer look.
The afternoon marks another successful visit by the Happy Hollow traveling show bringing fun and science education to kids who need both.
For more information on Happy Hollow Park & Zoo, go to www.hhpz.org
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