Sasha Smith,15, and his classmates from Harrision School District 2 were at Pikes Peak Community College, getting a feel for higher education.

It felt pretty scaly.

Smith was carefully edging a long hooked pole under a black rat snake that didn't seem to be cooperating.

"It's not recommended to keep the snakes that way very long. They need to feel comfortable," Tracey Anderson, head of PPCC's Zookeeping Technology Department, explained to the kids.

Fourteen-year-old Amber Hunter was awaiting her turn, having just let a bull snake's black forked tongue explore her palm. "It feels different than I thought. It's like a soft brush," she said.

Others examined a rose-haired tarantula, a herd of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and watched a bearded dragon named Clarice snap up bugs for lunch.

The middle school students, some of whom will be going on to high school this fall, were among 75 who participated in this pilot program that focuses on college and career. The sponsors, D-2 and PPCC, hope that the program will expand into an ongoing Kids College for area students.

The D-2 students spent four days at PPCC sampling a variety of classes. Besides zookeeping technology class, they got a taste of culinary arts, game design, radio and TV production and emergency medical services

Teresa Lance, head of secondary schools at Harrison, notes the program is part of the district's effort to make sure students are college- and career-ready.

D-2's Superintendent, Andre Spencer, of course, has a goal to graduate all his students, but also to have at least 50 of this year's incoming ninth-graders receive their college associate degrees at the same time they get their high school diplomas.

Approximately 70 percent of the district's students are impoverished or at risk of dropping out. Lance noted that many of the students don't have college on their radar, or if they do, wait until junior year to even set foot on a college campus.

"Our philosophy is we will help them get there. Programs like Kids College opens their eyes to options early on," Lance said.

The PPCC program was open to any Harrison middle school student, and the district held parent and student information nights to raise interest. The district paid for transportation and lunch, and the college provided the instructors.

Brian Wheeler, PPCC radio and television department chair, who introduced the Harrison students to that specialty, said one student told him it was the coolest time he ever had. "The beauty of this is that it is a way to invest in tomorrow." The equipment they used, he noted, wasn't hand-me-downs, but up-to-date video cameras they would use on the job. He said that priming their enthusiasm was "a way to invest in tomorrow."

Several students in PPCC's work study program helped out and also were struck by the enthusiasm.

I wish I had something like this when I was in middle school," said Hanna Juel, 18, a freshman. "When I was their age, I didn't even think about college or what I wanted to do, and here they are talking careers."

Emily Ortiz, 12, knows what she wants to do, As she cuddled a guinea pig, she said, "I think this will help me be a veterinarian. It is teaching me about endangered species and how to help animals."

The classes are often a reality check, too.

There has been more than one "accident," including a turtle who wet on a student. It didn't dampen the girl's enthusiasm, though, Anderson said. "She was a trooper. I teach them it's not always fuzzy Animal Planet, that zookeeeping can be emotionally exhausting and dirty work."

The students were impressed by their college experiences.

"I liked it a lot, getting the experience of what college will be like," said Sasha Smith. Amber Hunter liked being in a college atmosphere. She took not only zoology, but also culinary arts and radio and TV classes.

"I have loved animals since I was young and always wanted to work with animals. I learned all kinds of great opportunities."


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