The Tortoise and the Classroom: A Story of Hope

Angel, the South American red-footed tortoise at St. Charles School.
Angel, the South American red-footed tortoise at St. Charles School.

Angel is new to St. Charles School in Rochester. Like his classmates, he loves math, science and recess – though he’s a bit cautious of gym class. (There’s good reason:  he got sick once). His choice when lunch time comes around? His favorite: spring mix and strawberries.

Those are his favorites because Angel is a South American red-footed tortoise who lives in Ms. Kelley’s classroom at St. Charles School.

“He does everything with the students,” Ms. Kelley says as she cuddles Angel.

That’s right. Angel likes to cuddle, too, and that’s important for the students at St. Charles.

St. Charles School, formerly known as St. Charles Children’s Home, is now a full-time licensed private provider of special education for students who face severe behavioral and emotional challenges. Because of the special needs of students at the school and the one-on-one teaching approach, Angel gets to play a very important role at the school.

First, Angel fosters immersive learning by turning academic lessons into hands-on experiences.

Students study where Angel comes from in South America as part of their geography lessons and must learn how to take care of him. They weigh him and measure him to apply their math skills. And science? Angel is all over that.

“Angel has always been held in captivity, and when animals are held in captivity, they lose a lot of their natural abilities that help them care for their body. We’re trying to help Angel regain some of those skills, so he can be a healthier tortoise,” Ms. Kelley explains.

The students are teaching Angel how to track, a vital skill in the wild but also one that keeps Angel’s beak healthy by promoting the chewing of harder foods. Students use strawberries to lead Angel across the floor, an activity which makes science engaging for students who may have struggled with the demands of sitting still to learn.

But Angel is so much more than a science lesson.

Because of St. Charles School’s focus on students with behavioral issues, Angel’s biggest impact is as a therapy aide to the students.

Ms. Kelley makes sure Angel is there to greet the students in the morning as soon as they walk through the door. “Their faces just light up,” she says of the daily ritual.

josiah works with ms. kelly at the st. charles school in rochester.

Feeding Angel a strawberry is a reward that students can earn by completing their work, and sometimes Angel hangs out on the table while students work because he helps to keep them calm and focused.

“Angel teaches the students responsibility and compassion when they otherwise wouldn’t grasp these concepts,” Ms. Kelley says.

Angel wears a balloon when he’s out of the swimming pool he calls home so the students won’t step on him, and there’s a badge the students wear when one of them is designated to care for Angel.

“They’re very proud to have a turn at wearing the badge,” Ms. Kelley says.

But Angel’s impact is never clearer than in the story of Josiah.

When Josiah came to the school, he would not complete any work. He was withdrawn and shut off, choosing to cope by turning inward. Angel changed his life.

Ms. Kelley points to a sheet of notebook paper affixed to the wall above Angel’s swimming pool. The sheet is filled with numbered sentences written in a shaky script, evidence of how difficult it was for the author to write it. Some words are misspelled, and the sentences are not always complete. But you can understand what the author was trying to get across. It’s a list of rules for caring for Angel.

“He did this all himself,” Ms. Kelley says of Josiah, pride clear in her wide smile.

Josiah now comes into the classroom and sits down to his work every day with Angel on the table beside him. His shaky script is growing stronger, and his vocabulary is improving thanks to Angel’s influence.

“Angel totally transformed Josiah,” Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski, executive Director of St. Charles School says. “You can’t imagine the crises these children have been through when they come to us. Angel gives them a level of security, healing and hope they haven’t felt before.”