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Jennie Bell speaks with a raptor on her gloved hand.

Jennie Bell is the first AmeriCorps Promise Fellow at The Raptor Center.

Raptor Center program reaches out to children

Collaboration with AmeriCorps targets minority and low-income youth

By Sue Kirchoff

Angelina can't wait to see the raptors. The wiry 10-year-old trails Jennie Bell, an educator from The Raptor Center (TRC) at the U, from the hallway into the classroom, trying her best to peek into the closed pet carriers. Even after she is asked to take a seat, Angelina's bright eyes never leave the birds' carriers--except to look pleadingly at Bell and ask, "When are you going to take out the birds?"

Soon, Angelina's classmates file into the room. The fourth- and fifth-grade girls are in an after-school Girl Power! program at Jenny Lind Elementary School in north Minneapolis. According to their teacher, the girls are all "in trouble," so Bell doesn't quite know what to expect. She's prepared for a challenge. Bell starts the session with a probing series of questions: What is a raptor? What is a bird? What do birds have that other animals don't? What's special about the birds we call raptors? The girls chime in with answers that range from humorous to surprisingly knowledgeable. While they have a pretty good idea about what distinguishes birds from other animals, only one or two know that raptors are birds of prey--eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls--and how they're different from other birds.

It's hard to believe that these are the girls that the teacher had described as being in trouble in school. Sitting in a semicircle on the floor, they're attentive and responsive. Would their regular teachers recognize them as they join in discussions of food chains and food webs and eagerly pair up to take part in hands-on activities? And the birds haven't even come out yet.

Bell is the first AmeriCorps Promise Fellow at The Raptor Center, which has joined forces with AmeriCorps to bring educational programs with live raptors to minority and low-income children as part of an effort to close the achievement gap between white and black students.

"We find ways to make math and science interesting--to bring it alive," says Jennie Bell. "The birds and their life stories--their natural history--help us do that."

Sometimes called the domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is a national service program through which Americans work in communities to meet critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment--doing things like tutoring children, clearing trails, and establishing health care clinics. AmeriCorps Promise Fellows like Bell coordinate activities designed to support children and youth. "According to the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the achievement gap between Minnesota's white and black students is the largest in the nation among the 19 states with high school exit exams," says Lisa Koch, TRC's director of education and a former AmeriCorps member. "The AmeriCorps Promise Fellowship is helping us reach out to traditionally underrepresented audiences, specifically children of color and children from low-income families."

How will raptors help close the achievement gap? Koch is convinced that, backed up by a good teacher, curriculum, and learning tools, the eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls inspire children to learn. "Watch any group of students whenever we take out the birds," she says. "Instantly, we have their attention. And when we build lesson plans around the raptors, show the kids feathers and beaks and talons they can touch, and create activities in which the kids become raptors--they're hooked. They're learning before they know it." And that learning includes math and science, subjects that are important for future success and where the achievement gap is the greatest. "If you start falling behind in math and science, it's almost impossible to catch up," says Bell. "We find ways to make math and science interesting--to bring it alive. The birds and their life stories--their natural history--help us do that." Koch also sees the AmeriCorps Promise Fellow position as a way for The Raptor Center to give back to the community that has supported the center for so many years.

"We've always asked others for support," she says. "We've asked individuals and families to make donations and become members. We've encouraged schools and community organizations to hire us to do educational programs. We've sought out corporate sponsorships. Now, we're the ones offering to do something for the community."

Bell admits that, until she became a volunteer at The Raptor Center, she didn't have any particular interest in birds of prey. But there was something about working directly with the wild birds, looking into the eyes of the eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons that are permanent residents of The Raptor Center, that bonded her to them.

"I enjoy teaching and getting kids excited about learning," she says. "In my own experience, I found that the best teachers were those who were truly excited about the subject they taught. Their excitement was contagious. They made learning fun."

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