Trout and the Walls Came Tumbling Down

By Frank Pandolfo, TIC Volunteer

Trout in the classroom has always been an activity very high on my teaching list and this year was no exception. Even though my retirement from full time high school science teaching has taken me out of regular classroom duties, I still help other teachers setting up trout tanks and developing lessons around the life of the "brownies" and "brookies". While raising trout in classrooms can often become beset by challenges, never have we experienced such a near disaster as this past week.

The storyline begins as usual with our annual October trip to Hyde Park and the FDR Library for the fall conference of Trout in the Classroom. A beautiful fall day began with some of our Mount Vernon school colleagues, Carl Caprio and Carl Nifontoff, meeting a bunch of us from White Plains High School at the conference. One of my supervised teachers, Dr. Adriana Andrade, and three White Plains High School ASR (authentic science research) students piled into my Jeep and we made the journey to Hyde Park. The students loved the conference and made plenty of contacts they could call upon to help them with their research projects. The day concluded with the distribution of brown trout eggs and the Mount Vernon guys whisked them home in coolers ready for the waiting trout tank set up in my former classroom/greenhouse. Lilli Genovesi did her usual flawless job organizing the day and that evening I got a call from the Mount Vernon guys that the "brownie eggs" were all set in the basket in the nicely put together tank with excellent quality water at a neat 50°F temperature. As several weeks passed, we set up a second tank and John Fisher supplied us with another chiller and some "brookie eggs".  By the winterholidays we had two tanks with some 350 healthy and hungry trout. I had envisioned a banner year in the making. The students were diligent about feeding and water changes and they were keeping accurate logs of their work.  Both species of trout were growing way beyond expectations and at one point at the end of March I feared these fish, especially the "brownies," would get too big to handle in the tanks too far away from a suitable release date.

As we moved into April, our release date of April 16th could not have come fast enough.  The students were excited. Transportation, a nice picnic lunch, and photo documentation stills and a video were ready to go. Lilli had supplied us with the necessary stocking permits and we were thrilled that we were about to release some 300 trout that were bigger than I've ever experienced. On Monday the 12th I was calling around making sure every last detail was in place. After my checklist was complete I joined a few pals for a late afternoon of golf. It was on the golf course that I received that familiar "ping" on my Blackberry indicating a message. When I checked my email a few minutes later I saw a message from a fellow Mount Vernon retiree saying that the Mount Vernon High School had "collapsed." It did not hit me at that moment but our entire trout project was in serious jeopardy.

When I returned home I watched the news and saw that a large wall of the building had indeed collapsed. I felt better when I saw the aerial footage that showed clearly that the classroom/greenhouse was not affected.  The next morning I called Carl Caprio and he said to that the building is sealed off from everyone (everyone!) and the police said there was no electricity in the entire building. All I thought was without the chillers and aeration those two tanks would get too hot and those large fish would consume all of the oxygen and our project was destroyed. All morning went by and no word if and when anyone would be allowed anywhere near the classroom/greenhouse. I was in phone conversation with Carl and Lilli and our only solution was to try to get these fish and release them today, Tuesday. I did have my car with mobile aeration in place ready to fly up to Ward Pound Ridge to release the fish. Finally, Carl convinced two of the building inspectors to get the fish out in buckets. After instructing the inspectors where to go and what to do, in they went. After about two hours they returned to the outside parking field with two Home Depot buckets of trout. Carl secured them in his car and we hurried off to my house. We transferred the trout to the aerated buckets and off we went. The release was successful except for the fact the students could not participate. We took several pictures and emailed them to all the kids, but it surely was not the same thing as being there.

We have encountered many difficulties in raising our trout, but I don't think this kind of problem was ever anticipated.  Even though our trout survived this disaster, the true miracle was this building collapse took place about 5 p.m., long after the school day was over and no one was injured or worse!

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