Class assistant brings Lahontan trout project to students with special needs |

Class assistant brings Lahontan trout project to students with special needs

Dylan Silver/Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif.- Stephanie Keusseff, an assistant in South Tahoe High School’s special day class, changed the water in the class’s Lahontan trout aquarium over and over. She couldn’t figure out why it kept turning brown. After she hand-scrubbed each and every piece of gravel on the bottom of the tank, the water stayed clear like the fish’s natural habitat.

“It’s such a gift and such an opportunity to be able to grow and re-release an endangered species back into its habitat,” said Keusseff, who’s been working as a classroom assistant with the district for five years. “These kids will remember this.”

Trout in the Classroom is a program set up by California Trout where students raise Lahontan trout in their class and re-introduce them to the wild. Eight to 12 teachers in Lake Tahoe Unified School District are participating.

“It’s just a great opportunity for folks to learn about our native trout,” said California Trout program manager Jenny Hatch. “The youth are obviously super important.”

Keusseff took it upon herself to implement the Trout in the Classroom program in the special education class. She secured the equipment loan from California Trout, went to meetings with the organization on weekends, and spent hours cleaning the aquarium and cooler so the students would be able to watch healthy fish grow from eggs.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff going on here, so I didn’t have time for it,” said teacher Kim Stephenson. “She’s made it such an enriching program and I really appreciate that.”

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Keusseff connected the cooler, the filter and the aquarium. She learned how to maintain the water’s pH, temperature and clarity. She gathered curriculum and tailored it to the students’ needs. And she got a permit to raise and release the endangered fish.

The Forest Service gave her the Lahontan trout eggs. She remembers the day they hatched.

“I came to school one morning and I was like, ‘Oh no! Are they dead? Are they alive?,'” she said. “And all of a sudden there was like 40 of them swimming around.”

The students, who have intellectual disabilities of varying levels, help Keusseff monitor the water, performing up to six tests a day and help keep the equipment running. They created a colorful collage of the Lahontan trout’s natural habitat. They drew pictures of the fish and learned its parts, from the tail to the gills. For them, it’s been an experience they smile about.

“I’ve never grown them from eggs to fish before,” laughed Evan Libby, a student in the class. “They grow fast.”

Shanae Sivak, 18, thinks the tiny fish, now in what’s called the “alevin” stage of growth, are cute.

“It teaches us nature,” Sivak said. “It’s really fun.”

Dominic Day, 17, compared the Lahontan trout to the Dinichthys, a 20-foot prehistoric ocean predator with enormous teeth, he saw in a book.

“It hunts for food like this,” he said pointing to a picture of a Dinichthys snacking on a smaller fish. “They’re extinct too.”

The students may not understand every detail of the fish’s life cycle and history, but they understand that they’re doing something good, Keusseff said.

“They know it’s for the benefit (of Lake Tahoe),” she said. “And they like being a part of that.”

The Trout in the Classroom program fits well with the life skills curriculum Stephenson teaches, she said.

“Part of life is being able to care for something else,” she said.

Keusseff found out about the program through an e-mail forwarded by principal Ivone Larson is grateful she had the opportunity to expose the students to something new.

“I just clicked on it, and said, ‘Hey, this is so cool. Can I do this?'” she said. “I’m just so fortunate that our teacher let me.”

The class will release the inchlings in Taylor Creek on June 10. The fish will have to acclimate to their new surroundings before swimming for cover.

“The longer you keep them, the better chance they have of surviving,” Keusseff said.