Carrollton Elementary School students who want to boost their reading skills greeted their tutors with a soft pat on the head. The tutors responded in return, with mutual affection, by wagging their tails.
The new relationships between the children and their new four-legged friends are the foundation of a new school/community partnership, Barks and Books. Spearheaded by community activist Jill Duncan, the program enlists therapy dogs and their owners/handlers who have gone through specialized training to learn how to listen to children reading books to them.
Duncan first learned about a similar program years ago when she read an article titled “Reading is Going to the Dogs.” Intrigued, she explored the idea and began work to see if a model could be developed to serve schools in Carroll County.
“Through my involvement in the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Development Committee and the Carrollton-Carroll County Education Collaborative, I knew early literacy is important for student success,” said Duncan, a Carrollton State Farm insurance agent. “I reached out to school districts to see if they would be interested in such a program here.”
Carrollton City Schools and Carroll County Schools were both interested in the idea. Karen Wild, director of School Improvement for Carrollton City Schools, saw this opportunity as a complementary program that would support the school system’s district-wide literacy initiative.
“As Carrollton City Schools continues to seek innovative ways for growing literacy efforts, yet another partner has come on board! Barks and Books offers reading support to our most fragile learners in a way that is respectful, loving and thrilling for the students,” said Wild. “Could there be a more safe place than cuddled up with a friendly dog sharing a story together?”
With the school systems on board, Duncan sought financial assistance to help with training. The Power of the Purse and Alice Huffard Richards grant programs administered by the Community Foundation of West Georgia provided funding, as did State Farm.
“I really appreciate the community getting behind us to jump-start the program,” said Duncan.
While this one-on-one tutoring approach addresses an important need countywide, the need exceeded the program’s initial capacity. Duncan knew she would need to start small to serve students effectively.
“We felt it was important to work with a smaller number of students and to work with the same ones over time so they can build confidence in their reading,” she said.
Teams, which include the individual dogs and their handlers, started their work this month at Carrollton Elementary School, serving first graders on Monday, second graders on Wednesday, and third graders on Friday. Teams are also working at Temple Elementary School and plans are to organize efforts at Sharp Creek Elementary next.
“Our goal is to offer this tutoring alternative without adding stress on the teachers and schools,” said Duncan. “We are appreciative of their willingness to work with us and have been gracious in their support of this program.”
Carrollton Elementary School Principal Kylie Carroll sees the program as a great benefit to her school. “Barks and Books is an innovative opportunity to support students in learning to read,” she said. “The dogs help provide a non-threatening and motivating reading environment, and our students are eager to share their learning with their new furry friends. We are grateful for the partnership with Ms. Duncan and her team.”
Tammy Alford, a first grade teacher at CES, said a boy in her class who was paired with Charlie, Duncan’s dog, enjoyed his 20-minute reading experience.
“I think he felt confident in reading to the dog because there was no fear in making mistakes,” said Alford. “The pet provided a soothing, calming effect on him. He wasn’t nervous. So many struggling readers lack confidence in reading to others, but with the dog I think it will help build his confidence. He came back to the room all smiles.”
Another teacher, Kate Brown, had a similar experience with two girls selected from her class to participate.
“When they are able to read to a dog, the risk is low and they can take chances they might not otherwise take and work on reading aloud in a low stress, fun setting,” said Brown. “Both of my students came back to class wanting to share with others, and are excited to pick out books for the next time!”
Lisa Fowlkes, another CES teacher, said the tutor who worked with her student was a family dog, Colt, who is her son Drew’s and his wife Kristen’s pet. “I think this program not only will help with reading, but improve communication skills as well.”
On a Wednesday, other teams visited CES to read to second graders. One of the volunteer handlers, Kendra Wysoczynski, is the mother of a prekindergarten student at CES. She learned about Barks and Books and thought going through the training would be a great way to get involved in the school. On this day she and her dog, an almost-white goldendoodle named Moose, met the students they would tutor.
One little boy, with book in hand, settled down to read but asked if he could skip the title of the book because he couldn’t read “potato.”
“Well, Moose won’t understand what the book is about unless you tell him the title,” Wysoczynski gently pushed. The little boy shot a puzzled glance at Moose, sounded out “potato,” and then smiled at his success.
Another CES parent decided to join Barks and Books because it was a strategy she could also use at home with her own son who was performing just slightly below grade level. After several at-home sessions with their chocolate lab Max, Marty Griffin said she has noticed a distinct improvement in her son’s reading. Max is also working with second graders.
“He got a cheeseburger as a special treat on his first day of school because he did so well,” said Griffin.
Duncan said Barks and Books has 20 teams right now, but more are needed so the program can expand to serve more students.
“We really want to reach more students because there is a great need,” she said. “This is a great way to get involved in a school for stay-at-home parents, grandparents and others who have the time. It is very rewarding.”
To be candidates for the program, dogs must be at least 1 year old and the dogs and handlers must commit to required training sessions, which include therapy dog training and developing specialized tutoring skills through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. All dogs (and their humans – Duncan quipped) are evaluated by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs that includes observations of temperament, patience and obedience. To learn more about the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, visit https://www.therapydogs.com/. Learn about the READ program at www.readdogsmn.org.
Duncan encourages those who are interested in joining Barks and Books to contact her at [email protected].