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LAUSD students take classes with koalas at this top-in-nation magnet school

Feeding flamingos and caring for koalas may not seem like your typical first period class, but the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet is not your typical school.

It is one of just six schools across the nation to partner with a working zoo, and it was recently named the number one magnet school in the nation by the Magnet Schools of America.

For more than 40 years this hidden gem, a high school tucked away in Griffith Park, has been offering Los Angeles Unified School District students the opportunity to study zoology and animal science through hands-on experience at the Los Angeles Zoo.

“Griffith Park is our living laboratory,” said Brie-anna Hope Molina, Zoo Magnet coordinator for North Hollywood High School. “We are walking distance from the L.A. Zoo, the Autry Museum of the American West, the L.A. River and the Griffith Observatory is not too far away. … We have a lot of amazing resources here. It’s such a cool place to learn science and just to exist as a student.”

Molina is an alumna of the Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet and was thrilled to see her former school win the 2023 Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Merit Award of Excellence, the most prestigious award given by the Magnet Schools of America. It was granted in recognition of the school’s commitment to diversity, academic excellence and curriculum innovation.

Cristina Ardon, a senior in the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet program, helps herd flamingos into their enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo Friday, May 12, 2023. The magnet program recently received the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Merit Award of Excellence, the Magnet Schools of America’s most prestigious award for magnet schools. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Cristina Ardon, a senior in the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet program, feeds flamingos at the Los Angeles Zoo Friday, May 12, 2023. The magnet program recently received the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Merit Award of Excellence, the Magnet Schools of America’s most prestigious award for magnet schools. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Juliette Dalicano, a senior in the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet program, left, helps Zoo Keeper Krissy Parada prepare the koala enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo Friday, May 12, 2023. The magnet program recently received the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Merit Award of Excellence, the Magnet Schools of America’s most prestigious award for magnet schools. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Juliette Dalicano, a senior in the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet program, puts out fresh eucalyptus leaves for the koalas at the Los Angeles Zoo Friday, May 12, 2023. The magnet program recently received the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Merit Award of Excellence, the Magnet Schools of America’s most prestigious award for magnet schools. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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“What we are doing here is so special, unique and valued. I know that by seeing how amazing our students are doing, and how much they credit that to our program. But to see that acknowledged on a national stage is really exciting,” said Molina.

The school boasts a 100% graduation rate, and 95% college matriculation rate, and offers 23 Advanced Placement courses in partnership with North Hollywood High School. Its student body of 270 is drawn from all corners of Los Angeles. As part of the district’s commitment to equity, free transportation is provided to students who live outside a five-mile radius of the campus.

“Animal husbandry is easily the highlight of my week,” said senior Juliette Dalicano, who is enrolling at UC Davis in the fall. “The needs of the animals are different day to day, so I learn something new every day. Getting to participate hands-on in the conservation efforts at the L.A. Zoo is so inspiring.”

Students have the opportunity to take 20 science electives including animal husbandry, animal behavior, zoology and astronomy. During 9th and 10th grade, students take shuttle buses to the North Hollywood High School campus, which is located 7 miles away, for select classes. In their upperclassmen years students can opt to take classes at both campuses or just at the Zoo Magnet campus.

Students work with zookeepers and Griffith Park rangers throughout their four years at the school, and in senior year they have the chance to intern at the zoo. During internships, students work one-on-one with a zookeeper on daily tasks such as feeding the animals, cleaning their habitats and preparing activities for them.

“The internship helps students understand if this is a path they want to pursue,” said Molina. “Zookeeping is tough and at times dirty work. Students learn a lot from it and form close relationships with their keeper that can lead to opportunities when they graduate.”

One of the goals of the school is to create more diversity in the fields of zoology and animal sciences by providing a career pipeline to students of all backgrounds. It has a proven success rate and several of the zookeepers now at the L.A. Zoo are alumni of the school, Molina said.

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“The Zoo Magnet has provided opportunities for classes, internships, and connections which have been so helpful to get involved in the biology and animal science field,” said senior Stella Ferguson, who will be enrolling in Cornell University in the fall. “The community at the school is also so special and supportive, and I have always felt at home on campus.”

Molina said that one of the highlights for many students is the tight-knit community and dedicated attention offered on the small magnet campus, which includes ten teachers, nine classrooms and a designated counselor.

Students also benefit from the rare and therapeutic experience of spending their school day immersed in nature.

“Zoo Magnet has grown to be my second home,” said senior Eowyn Andres, who is enrolling in Bucknell University in the fall. “On campus, I feel accepted, welcomed, and included. As I leave to graduate, I’m leaving behind a family and a community that has sculpted me into the person that I am today.”

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