Ayden Carpenter, right, and Breeanne Davis check out one of the fish tanks at Cheryl Woodard’s classroom at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Teacher Cheryl Woodard and Ayden Carpenter discuss a plan for his pretend pet during a recent class at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Levi Greenwood, left, and Ayden Carpenter check out the fish swimming around in their classroom fish tank at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Ashton Furlong, left, and Levi Greenwood check out one of two fish tanks in their classroom at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Ayden Carpenter, right, and Breeanne Davis check out one of the fish tanks in Cheryl Woodard’s classroom at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Levi Greenwood, left, schedules an appointment for Levi Greenwood’s cat, right, at their makeshift Vet Clinic at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Prekindergartners take care of real and pretend pets at the Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Breeanne Davis, left, and Ayden Carpenter check out one of two fish tanks in the classroom. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Ashton Furlong brings his cat to the pretend vet clinic at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Phoebe Nagle looks at fish swimming around one of the classroom tanks at Libby-Tozier School in Litchfield. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LITCHFIELD — For five years, Gronk the goldfish served as a kind of teacher’s helper. Kindness. Caring. Responsibility. He taught it all.

When Gronk died at the beginning of the school year, teacher Cheryl Woodard and her Libby-Tozier School prekindergartners were left without their beloved classroom pet.

Now a betta in one tank and six tiny fish in another — all yet to be named — are taking over where Gronk left off.

“They love it and it’s really calming for young children,” Woodard said. “Sometimes I’ll just see kids coming over and they just watch the fish. It’s very therapeutic.”

Generations of students grew up with hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs in school, but the popularity of classroom pets waned in recent years. School officials grew concerned about allergies and other issues. Teachers didn’t have the time or money to devote to an animal.

But Woodard, a longtime teacher, bucked the trend. With a grant from the Maryland-based program Pets in the Classroom, she bought her first fish about six years ago and has had at least one ever since.

Her latest fish live in their own corner of the classroom, next to student artwork based on the children’s picture book “The Rainbow Fish” and steps away from the pretend-play area that, this month, is set up as a veterinary clinic in honor of the classroom pets.

“I like all of them,” said Ashton Furlong, 4, peering first at the school of tiny fish and then at the betta. “This blue fish is just chilling out. He’s just chilling out right there.”

Sometimes the class pets feature in Woodard’s lesson plans. The kids will learn about voting, for example, when they name their fish.

Other times, lessons involving the fish come more organically: responsibility, the need to care for living things, how humans should interact with animals.

“Sometimes we talk about even life and death, that sometimes our fish die and it’s sad but that’s part of life,” Woodard said.

Woodard has applied for and received a $50 sustaining grant from Pets in the Classroom every year to pay for food, supplies and, this year, new fish.

Established in 2010 by the Pet Care Trust, Pets in the Classroom issued about 3,000 grants its first year. It now gives out about 25,000 grants each school year.

Woodard’s classroom fish have worked out so well that she’s considering adding a pet. Maybe something that can live out of water.

“I’d like to get a hermit crab at some point,” Woodward said. “They would love them.”

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal feature about animals and their people. Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at (207) 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].


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