Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Aquarium trip helps Pasco students bond


Brandi Barber stopped in her tracks as she turned the corner and found herself face-to-face with a wall tank filled with sharks and rays. ¶ Her face said it all. She wasn't taking another step in the Florida Aquarium. ¶ Then along came Holly Riopelle. ¶ "It's okay," Holly said soothingly, putting her arm around Brandi's shoulder as she eased her toward the glass. "They're not going to hurt you." ¶ Holly lightly knocked on the tank. The sharks and rays paid her no mind. ¶ "Come on," she continued. "I'll touch it with you."

Moments later, Brandi gingerly placed her hand next to Holly's. A giant grin crossed her face as Brandi realized she had done it. Holly smiled, too, recognizing her own accomplishment.

Then they moved on to their next adventure.

The two girls were taking part in an educational experiment Friday at the aquarium.

Teachers at Seven Springs Middle School wanted to see how well students with and without disabilities could work together, as a precursor to expanding the school's "social interaction program" next year.

Students like Brandi, a 13-year-old seventh-grader who has Down's syndrome, were paired with teams of students like Holly, a sixth-grader who's in the school's leadership club. More than 50 kids participated in the educational field trip to the aquarium.

"If a few people look at (the special needs students) positively, it trickles down," teacher Marilyn Hovsepian said. "And the kids learn to be accepting of kids who are different."

That's a message the sixth-grade leaders already carried with them.

"Kids make fun of them all the time, and I don't think it's right," said Brandon Schadler. "I came to show them that I think they're just fine."

Brandon's team acted decisively, asking Patrick, who is diagnosed with autism, to lead their group activities through the aquarium.

Patrick beamed at the opportunity, and immediately determined that the kids should check out the sting ray touch tank first.

"Do you know how to touch them?" Alexis Black asked Patrick, who shook his head in the negative. "You use two fingers. You touch really soft."

Patrick extended two of his fingers and rubbed them gently on his own arm to demonstrate. Alexis nodded as they approached the rays.

Then Patrick plunged his hand in, touching the animals just like his new friend had shown him.

Before long, the group acted as if they had been best buddies forever, though they had only really met that day.

"Hey, Patrick! Over here!" they'd shout, making sure he got to see the sleeping otters, the squawking baby ibis and other animals on his check list. (The special needs class studied aquatic life before making the trip, and they had the assignment of finding specific animals and marking them on a list.)

"It's amazing how fast they wanted to be Patrick's friend," teacher Kala Hamilton said. "They want to do it."

Some of the students with more profound handicaps couldn't verbalize their experiences about the trip. But their teachers and parents said they could see their joy.

Sommer Simmons, for instance, is visually impaired and rarely opens her eyes. She sat inches from the aquarium's giant tank of fish and eels, rapt as the parrotfish and morays glided by.

Kayla Newton cannot walk or talk as part of her disability. She smiled as she watched the fish beside Sommer.

"She could sit here all day," said Beth Antonelli, Kayla's mom. "This is her favorite thing to do."

Getting to this point wasn't easy. The Pasco County school district has limited funds for "educational experiences" (that's a field trip to most of us).

So special needs teacher Rich Doskoez, convinced his students needed the experience, applied for an innovative teaching grant, which he won. He used the money to buy supplies so the students could make and sell dog biscuits.

Some kids could only push buttons, but they did what they could. The sixth-grade leadership students helped along the way, too.

The sales went so well that the classes were able to rent buses and pay for entry to the aquarium.

"It's a win-win for everybody," said Doskoez. "We're real excited about it."

So, too, were all the kids.

"I like to get people to smile and let them know they are friends," said Promise Cregar, one of the leadership students.

Or, as Patrick put it, "I liked it." He showed off his scavenger hunt paper, pointing to all the animals he saw. He was most happy about seeing the sharks, and disappointed that he didn't find penguins.

Then he took off with Brandi and the rest of his classmates for lunch and the bus ride home.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

Aquarium trip helps Pasco students bond 04/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 12:16pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Joe Maddon: What my time in Tampa Bay meant, and still means, to me

    The Heater

    Editor's note: The Rays next week in Chicago will meet up for the first time with former manager Joe Maddon, who is in his third year leading the Cubs after nine with the Rays. In advance of the Tuesday-Wednesday series, we asked Maddon to share his thoughts in a column on what his time in Tampa Bay meant to …

    Joe Maddon waits to greet B.J. Upton after Upton's home run in Game 2 of the ALCS in 2008 at Tropicana Field. [Times files (2008)]
  2. First WannaCry, now cyberattack Petya spreads from Russia to Britain


    Computer systems from Russia to Britain were victims of an international cyberattack Tuesday in a hack that bore similarities to a recent one that crippled tens of thousands of machines worldwide.

    A computer screen cyberattack warning notice reportedly holding computer files to ransom, as part of a massive international cyberattack, at an office in Kiev, Ukraine, on Tuesday.  A new and highly virulent outbreak of malicious data-scrambling software appears to be causing mass disruption across Europe.
[Oleg Reshetnyak via AP]
  3. Pinellas sheriff's corporal had racist, sexist, pornographic content on his cell phone

    Public Safety

    LARGO — A Pinellas County sheriff's corporal resigned recently after an investigation into an alleged extramarital affair revealed a trove of racist, sexist and pornographic images on his personal cell phone.

    Shawn Pappas, 46, resigned as a training division corporal from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office after an investigation revealed a trove of offensive images and videos on his phone. This photo was taken as a screenshot from one of the videos released by the Sheriff's Office that Pappas filmed while on duty. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine reflects on the news from the Congressional Budget Office analysis that could imperil GOP leaders' hopes of pushing their health care the plan through the chamber this week, Tuesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington. [AP photo]
  5. Review: Dan Auerbach, Benjamin Booker plumb the past for inspiration on new albums

    Music & Concerts

    It didn't take Benjamin Booker long to get lumped in with the greats. The Tampa-raised singer-songwriter's 2014 self-titled blues-punk debut brought widespread acclaim, not to mention an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, a tour with Jack White and sessions with Mavis Staples.

    The cover of Benjamin Booker's new album "Witness." Credit: ATO Records