Mark Twain was one of the first to publicly sing the praises of the California red-legged frog.
Back in 1867, in a short story titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” he wrote about a fellow “by the name of Jim Smiley … He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.”
In 2014, the ancestors of that exceptionally “edercated” California red-legged frog became the catalyst for a local educational experience involving Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, and some inspirational students and faculty members at Salton City’s Sea View Elementary School: fifth-grade student Samantha Lambarena; sixth-grade student Freedom America Payne; teacher and faculty adviser Virginia Haddad; and principal Dr. Timothy Steele.
With stylistic apologies to Mark Twain, Mrs. Haddad begins our modern inspirational tale: “I have an after-school class named the ‘Prodigy Cats.’ Samantha actually named it that, and it’s a group of kids who like to dream—high-achieving kids who like to do projects.
“A couple of years ago when I was looking on the Internet for contests for my students to get involved in, I found one art contest through an organization called Save the Frogs. They put me on a mailing list. … One person mentioned their state amphibian, so I was wondering what ours was. I looked and saw we didn’t have one.
“So I presented this idea to them: What if we work on getting a state amphibian for California? They thought it was a great idea. … So I asked the head of Save the Frogs, Dr. Kerry Kriger, who’s a well-known expert on frogs: What do you suggest would be a good frog to be our state amphibian? He said the California red-legged frog. … He suggested we go to our local assemblyperson. Then last November, sixth-grader Freedom Payne wrote the letter; we all pitched in, then he typed it up; about 10 kids signed it, and we sent it up to Assemblymember Perez at his office in Indio.
The group didn’t hear back, so they sent a second letter to Perez’s Sacramento office.
Samantha takes over the story. “We did get a reply to that,” she says. “After that, we started working on our project and learning more about the frog.”
Perez picks up the narrative: “I really didn’t think much about it in the beginning, other than it was a cute idea. But it never left the back of my mind.”
Haddad and some students went to an open house at Perez’s Indio office back in January. “There was music and tamales and cookies,” she says. “But Mr. Perez was so nice to these kids. He literally took them under his arms. There were a lot of important people there, but Mr. Perez took time with these kids and showed us around his office.”
Perez says, “As a result of that, I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s give this a shot.’ This could truly be an educational experience for the students in which they can see how a bill becomes law and experientially go through it.”
Samantha says the students then got to work. “We learned more facts about the frog: its behavior, its habitat and what it eats.”
“It’s indigenous to California,” interjects Freedom.
It’s a threatened species which does not quite reach the level of endangered.
“The bullfrog has been eating the California frogs lately, and it’s our frog’s worst enemy now,” Samantha says.
Back we go to the unfolding story of the legislative initiative. “In February of this year, Mr. Perez came to Sea View Elementary and did a presentation for all of our fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students about how a bill becomes law,” Steele says. “Then, Mr. Perez announced that he was going to move forward and present this bill, which he identified as AB 2364. He invited us up to Sacramento.”
The students made the trip to the state Capitol and gave testimony. “In the committee session, I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I waive my presentation. I have a couple of students here who would like to present this bill, and they’re ready for you.’ And they basically took over,” Perez says. “The assemblymembers were impressed. They really appreciated what the kids had to say, and they took a liking to the bill. On the Assembly floor, it was passed by a 52-10 vote, and now it’s going to the Senate.”
Steele says it was an amazing experience. “When you talk about learning being a part of students’ real lives, this was the epitome. You can’t get any more involved than sitting in the state Capitol in Sacramento, and you’re facing a panel of assemblymembers, and you’re in fifth- or sixth-grade.”
So what hurdles remain before the battle for designation of the state amphibian is won? “It’s going to the Senate, where it will be referred to a committee, in Natural Resources, perhaps,” Perez explains. “But that’s not going to happen until sometime in June. I’ll have to present the bill to the committee in the Senate as well at that time. It’s expensive to take the students up to Sacramento. It takes a lot of time and resources, so I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that again, quite frankly.”
However, Freedom and Samantha would jump at the opportunity. When asked if they’d be returning to Sacramento they reply in unison, “I hope!”
Has this ambitious enterprise changed their view on life at all? “Being a part of this whole experience has definitely changed my life,” says Freedom, “because not a lot of kids get this kind of opportunity. And getting this opportunity makes me happy and helps me move on. In my free time now, whenever I’m bored, I go on my iPad and start drawing frogs.”
As for Samantha: “It changed my life, because before, I used to feel bored and sad and not knowing what to do. But now, since Mrs. Haddad told me about the Save the Frogs website and because of what we’ve been doing, I stay involved and have been educated about this issue. And I feel better.”