NEAR WEST SIDE — As a kid, Whitney Young’s Todd Katz loved science so much, he decided to bring it with him into his adult life.
And he literally still has his childhood box turtle to prove it.
“That’s Turby. He’s 30-plus-years-old and still has lots of life left,” Katz said of his box turtle, who lives at Whitney Young Magnet Academy among numerous other snakes, cockroaches, and lizards.
Katz, who’s taught science at Whitney Young for seven years, started a program last year that allows students to care for an endangered species on school property, with the ultimate goal being to release the animals back into the wild.
Katz was inspired to get kids hands-on access to endangered species after listening to a lecture from Paul Ritter, a Pontiac science teacher who helped found the program called Operation Endangered Species in 2011.
Now Young students regularly collaborate with Ritter’s students at Pontiac High School.
“I wanted to have more things alive in my classroom than just kids,” Katz said laughing.
Walking into Katz’s classroom, science drips from the walls and crawls on the floors. Kids from the Eco-club program meet here after school and on this day the group of mostly girls sings along to an Ace of Base song while taking turns cage-cleaning and turtle babysitting.
“Hey you guys, who’s watching the turtles?” Katz calls out, as a green striped turtle heads underneath a cabinet.
In one corner, liter bottles holding plants drip water into a pool of fish. The fish water is then brought back up through the liters again, where the plants and rocks filter it.
In a converted closet on the room’s other side, an array of plants and vegetables — including corn, purple basil and cabbage — is tended under the cautious eye of several teenagers.
“Mr. Katz, look! The purple basil is actually purple,” said Tonyisha Harris, head caretaker of the plants.
“Oh my God, is that a snake?” said a girl who’s never been to Eco-club calls out after seeing a python around Harris’ neck. “Is this what you guys do in Eco-club? Can I join?”
Josephine the python and an endangered alligator snapping turtle named Little Ritter both live in a designated space just outside Katz’s classroom. Students are responsible for taking weekly measurements of the animals, in addition to changing their water and feeding them live crickets and maggots.
Braver students in some of Katz’s classes were also given the opportunity to eat a maggot.
“I’ve had three kids do it so far, we just started on Friday. It is pretty disgusting,” Katz said.
If all goes as planned, the snapping turtle — who also seems to enjoy a good maggot — will be released into a watershed in southern Illinois this year. Katz is also working towards getting several species of endangered salamander for next year.
Actually having an endangered species at a school is rare, as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is cautious about giving out permits, according to Operation Endangered Species founder Paul Ritter.
“I think it speaks volumes about Whitney Young Magnet School and volumes about Todd and his kids. Todd is a champion and his kids are freaking brilliant,” Ritter said.
Katz’s dedication to social responsibility extends beyond just the endangered species program. Freshman year, all Katz's students work on something his calls the Mycelia Project, which requires students to improve the environment within their communities. For one current group of students, that means negotiating a deal with Whole Foods to sell their homemade deodorant.
Members of Eco-club (including three tight-knit guys known only as “The Trinity”), also helped revamp Young’s greenhouse, flowers from which are used in a perfume made by Tru Fragrance, a local Chicago perfumery.
“My goal is for these kids to make this into something all schools have,” Katz said of the endangered species program. “Why doesn’t every single school have an endangered species? That way every school could say, 'We can make a difference. And here’s how.'”