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He's no dummy

Students at Pinellas Central Elementary School know all about Zulu.

He's brown and furry and loves pizza (though he eats his fruits and vegetables, too).

He gets to his apartment in the ceiling by climbing the stairs at the top of the art cabinet in Mr. Ogle's room.

Zulu shows up at the end of class to talk to students, and he's also the co-anchor of the Mustang News Show on Friday mornings.

"He's like our second mascot because he's always coming around," said Rachel Davis, 10, who works on the morning news broadcast with Zulu.

"Zulu goes mostly everywhere," agreed her classmate Megan Blakeslee, 11, who was lead anchor with Zulu on a recent Friday morning.

The brainchild of visual arts teacher Jonathan Ogle, Zulu the puppet has been a fixture at the school in Pinellas Park for several years. "He's this guy that's hung around here for five or six years now, and a lot of these kids have been here since kindergarten, so they've grown up with him," Ogle said.

Ogle received the puppet in 2000 from a former co-worker who thought Ogle might make use of it on the morning news show, which was still in its infancy at the time. Ogle, who didn't know much about puppets at the time, took it home. Listening to Louis Armstrong sing What a Wonderful World on a television special one afternoon, Ogle realized he had found a voice for the puppet. The name Zulu just came to him.

Before long, Zulu had a friend, Cotton Candy, and some relatives - Zupa, his dad (who drives a Harley, wears a leather jacket and lives in Arizona), and Zubro, his soft-spoken, "nice guy" brother.

"They started asking about his family, and the wheels started turning," Ogle said.

Ogle creates voices and characters for each of the puppets. "You start to really develop that personality, whoever that puppet is going to be. The voice is all-important. Once you develop the voice, you can develop the personality. That puppet becomes it's own character," he said.

Zubro's voice bears a resemblance to that of Stitch, from Walt Disney's 2002 animated feature Lilo and Stitch. Cotton Candy - owned by fourth-grade twins Rachel and Sarah Davis - sounds a bit like Mrs. Doubtfire, the lead character from the 1993 movie of the same name.

But Zulu is only one of about 700 "furry friends" at Pinellas Central.

Around the time that Ogle was developing Zulu, recently retired teacher Walt Blanchard was cultivating an interest in puppets for use in his classroom. He found that the puppets helped spur his students' imaginations and helped them to visualize stories.

"One of my real concerns, after 34 years of teaching, is that children have lost the ability to use their imagination when they're reading. Slowly I began to see other reasons to use (the puppets) within the school system, too. Sometimes a child won't talk about their problems, but will talk through the puppets about their problems by using a different persona," Blanchard said.

Little by little, the School of Puppetry was born. Blanchard received a $2,000 minigrant through the Pinellas Education Foundation to buy puppets, but the most of the school's $14,000 stock of puppets have been purchased out of Blanchard's own pocket.

The collection includes a wide array of puppet types, from finger and hand puppets to wraparounds, full-body puppets and marionettes. They range in price from $1 to $500, depending on the style and quality. Blanchard said he buys most of his puppets from Grandma and Grandpa's Puppets at John's Pass Village in Madeira Beach. The collection includes all sorts of animals, as well as unicorns, wizards and a Chinese dragon.

Between 50 and 60 fourth- and fifth-graders make up the School of Puppetry. Students would meet with Blanchard one hour per week to practice with the puppets and create scripts for shows put on at the school on the 20-foot stage, complete with curtains, designed and built by Blanchard and his wife.

Blanchard, who retired earlier this month after spending his 34-year teaching career at Pinellas Central, said he hopes the program will continue next year with Ogle at the helm. Further, Blanchard said he hoped to see a partnership created with local high schools, where high school students could be trained to use the puppets and, in turn, teach the craft to elementary school students.

Besides appearing in school programs, the puppets are used on the morning news show on Wednesdays to discuss the monthly character trait.

Librarian Kathy Phelan, who produces the news show, said that Zulu is a great role model and someone the kids can relate to. "He's a folk hero, and I think kids need that," she said.

Phelan said that the children - who rotate jobs on the morning broadcast - are eager for their turn at the Friday anchor spot. "Everyone wants to be co-anchor with Zulu, and part of that is Mr. Ogle's personality. He's very positive, upbeat and has nice things to say to the kids," Phelan said.

On a Friday earlier this month, heading to the media room to get ready for the morning news show, Ogle was stopped in the hallway by a handful of students, who wanted to say hello to Zulu or give him a pat on the head. Though he's one of the school's most popular charges, Zulu has maintained an aura of mystery. His origins are unknown, and many students don't know that he's 9 years old.

Least of all do they know his biggest secret: Zulu's dream is to appear on PBS someday.