CINCINNATI – Tyeisha Cole was an 11-year-old with a passion for nature and the cards stacked against her. Her mom was struggling to make ends meet for Tyeisha and her little sister, making everyday life a challenge and the path toward a good education and fulfilling career a steep one.
"Yeah, it was hard. Mom was a single mother, and we were taking care of our dying grandparents. A dollar could only stretch so far," she said. "We definitely had it rough coming up, but my mom always emphasized education."
Cole dreamed of a better life, and the vehicle she chose to help get her there was Cincinnati Zoo's education program.
She started at 11 by joining the Junior Zoologist Club, learning the ins and outs of animal behavior, habitat and care, and ended with a diploma at 17 from the Zoo Academy , Cincinnati Public Schools' on-site high school that works in collaboration with Hughes Center High School. Along the way, she earned a scholarship to study wildlife in Billings, Montana where she studied wildlife outside of the zoo's confines.
Sarah Navarro, education program coordinator, became a mentor to Cole early on, instilling confidence and encouraging her to make the most of her talents. "Sarah has always been there throughout my experience. She's always been up to date with what I'm doing," Cole said.
Her passion for conservation and wildlife grew as she volunteered more, leading to her enrollment in Zoo Academy, where she spent the last two years of high school. "There are usually only 20 or 30 of you there. You become like a small family. I remember many nights staying at the zoo until eight or nine because I had so much homework to finish," Cole said.
Today, she is 24 and pursuing a master's degree from American Public U. in environmental policy and management while working for American Airlines in Cincinnati.
She earned a bachelor's degree from Miami University in urban regional planning and environmental science, doing fieldwork in Kenya related to water conservation and affordable housing, first through the International Training School and then by herself, studying Swahili for good measure.
Her story of making dreams come true is one that the zoo's education staff hopes to replicate many times over as it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the zoo's education program. Building on the success of students like Cole, the zoo is unveiling its most ambitious offering to date called Zoo Troop .
"I look at Tyeisha and I think there are so many kids with that potential," Navarro said in an interview at the zoo. "She is just one of many talented people that are out there, and if we can play a small or a big role in their development, that's why I got into this field."
The zoo has long offered programming for kids ages 18 months to 18 years, but for the first time, the staff has designed a curriculum that is meant to follow individual students from grade to grade, building on previous lessons rather than serving up everything a la carte.
Zoo Troop sessions are held weekly for four-week increments, beginning with toddler programs 18-36 months and going through 5th grade classes that include studying primates and their different characteristics. In fall, Zoo Troop will extend through 8th grade.
A recent toddler class – called A Hoot and a Holler – brought together a small group of rambunctious kids and their parents or grandparents who started with the basics. Evan Banzhaf led them through a series of interactive activities, roaring like lions and hooting like monkeys while they pointed to the places on a huge drawing of a jungle where various animals might live.
"Zoo Troop doesn't follow a regimented plan for a discreet goal – classes can shift focus depending on the interests and strengths of the kids – "But we absolutely have goals to achieve," Navarro said, including children developing socially, intellectually, and instilling wonder.
Dan Marsh, the zoo's enthusiastic director of education who has been on staff since 1989, said Zoo Troop is a new concept for not just zoos but any number of public institutions like museums. "This is a game-changing innovation for any institution. One experience builds on the previous one, though children can enter at any point," he said. "There is a development plan. It's more than just accumulating knowledge."
Thane Maynard, the director and iconic face of the zoo, got his start in the fledgling education program in the 1970s. He's traveled to zoos around the world and has concluded, " This is the strongest zoo education program we've seen anywhere.
"Zoos are like a nature center for kids who are really into it. We're promoting a really in-depth experience where we can," he said.
The department has blossomed since Barry Wakeman started out as its sole full-time employee with the help of a part-time assistant, growing to 14 full-time staffers and numerous part-timers and volunteers.
ages 4 through 14, with a wide range of topics culminating in the 12-14-year-olds learning about saving wildlife and wild places.
Zoo Tribe is a concentration of the most devoted zoo fans ages 13-17, offering teen-agers more responsibility like becoming handlers of animals that the patrons can pet on zoo grounds.
"Some 6th-8th graders are big naturalists. It becomes selfselecting as they head into their teens. We have great classes for them," Maynard said.
While the zoo hopes to mentor future zoologists, the larger goal is to help foster critical thinking and a respect for nature among young people to carry into any career they choose.
"We don't want them all to become the next Thane Maynard, but we do want them to be problem solvers, action-oriented and collaborative," Marsh said.
"We want them to come out with more self confidence. That is a huge part of our mission," Navarro added.
All the classes and camps cost money, up to $230 for full-day summer camps, and Navarro said financial aid is not available for those who can't afford them. "There is no financial aid yet, but that's absolutely something that's important to me. We don't want it to be a limiting factor," she said.
There is an unmistakable joy among the education staff and enthusiasm about the Zoo Troop innovation. Melinda Voss, education program manager, talks of watching kids blossom over the course of summer camps that bring kids together for 35 hours and building on that success. "We know there's something really special about spending time here," she said. "You can't be part of a family without time spent together. Zoo Troop is all about coming on a weekly basis."
"It's about wildlife and conservation and nature, and it's a good place for kids to be nature nerds," said Voss, who said she spent her childhood exploring the woods around her west-side home.
She offered a tour of the barracks where animals that join handlers for roving displays are kept. Voss broke into a big smile showing off Axel, a screaming hairy armadillo, a creature whose looks only a mother – or a zoologist – could love.
A colleague was orienting three newcomers – Lilly, Tilly and Jilly, hamster-like degus – to their portable cages, allowing them to dart in and out. The menagerie included a wide range of other animals, like Julius Squeezer, a boa constrictor who was kept a safe distance from his edible neighbors. Nessie the water dragon was pulled out by Voss for another happy visit.
They'll all be employed to reach out to the Zoo Troopers, whose futures will be bright if the education team has anything to say about them.
"Can the zoo be an epicenter for change," Marsh asked. "I think the answer is a resounding yes."