The Classroom Pet

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent
Emma Johnson, 8, observes "Legs," an African Green frog, in Dona Given's third grade classroom at Eli Pinney Elementary School in Dublin. "Legs" is the class pet and students care for the frog daily.

Dona Givens brought her love of animals to the classroom when she began teaching 30 years ago.

Throughout her career she has hosted a rotating menagerie of critters, from guinea pigs and rabbits to geckos and turtles. This year, Givens' third-grade class at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin adopted an African Green Frog named Legs, a leftover tadpole that needed a home after another class finished a lesson on life cycles last spring.

Legs will come in handy when Givens' class studies a similar science unit and hatches its own tadpoles later this school year. Until then, his presence in the classroom adds daily enjoyment for students, who help to feed him and clean his tank.

"For me, I grew up with a ton of animals," Givens said. "I just think it's important for the kids to be exposed. It helps build that compassion and understanding of the natural world."

Legs stands out as the quietest one in a classroom buzzing with 8- and 9-year-olds. But his peers say he has a big personality once you get to know him.

When he floats with his tiny legs fully extended, "We think he's like, 'What's up?' " said Emma Johnson, 9, who volunteered to take the frog home over winter break with her parents' permission.

"We have two dogs and a bunny, so the frog is so easy," said Emma's mother, Wendy Summerhill, whose son also frog-sat last school year. "We're pros by now."

Sometimes, Legs causes trouble - like the time he leaped from the sink when Givens was changing his water. Or when her students were doing an independent reading activity, and she caught a few of them ogling the frog instead.

Occasional distractions aside, Legs is a pleasure to have in class, Givens said.

She's gradually noticed fewer teachers taking on the responsibility of classroom pets. Concerns about asthma and allergies are common, which is why she now avoids introducing animals with fur or feathers.

"I do think it's important (to have animals in classrooms)," Givens said, "but I totally understand why teachers are shying away more from it."

Many central Ohio school districts, including Dublin, have board policies on the use of animals in classrooms and on school premises. These policies typically outline rules to protect the health and safety of students and staff, rather than ban animals altogether, said Kenna Haycox, policy consultant with the Ohio School Boards Association.

Districts are required to address service animals. Beyond that, some boards opt to limit the number and type of animals that are allowed, while others defer oversight to building administrators.

"Really it's up to (districts) to decide what works for them and their community and their schools, and then take those policies and make sure they're communicated," Haycox said.

At Maryland Elementary in Bexley, animals have become integral teaching tools.

The building is home to a hedgehog, a 30-gallon fish tank, three painted turtles and a school facility dog named Glazier who resides with Principal Jon Hood. Glazier, a specially trained golden/Labrador retriever mix, spends much of his time with the building's special-needs students, but garners affection from the entire student body.

"We have 350 kids in the building, and he probably gets at least that many pets a day," Hood said. "A big part of his job is just to help the school climate."

Therapy dogs make perfect reading partners for first- and second-grade students at Johnnycake Corners Elementary in the Olentangy Local School District, said Krista Hyme, a kindergarten teacher who coordinates the building's reading-dog program.

Volunteers from Therapy Dogs Inc. and Therapy Dogs International visit daily, lending their time and their furry friends for individual reading sessions.

"A child that's nervous, maybe they read real quiet or slow, this is kind of a safe zone for them," Hyme said. "They're not going to be judged."