Gone to the dogs

After this school launched New York City’s first comfort dog program, others joined the pack

Delight is a comfort dog from MS 224. The program is expanding to 60 schools by the end of the year.

Inside the main office of Shell Bank Middle School in Sheepshead Bay, a Post-it note sat on an administrator’s desk beside an empty lunch plate. The note read, “It wasn’t me, love Brody.” On the floor was a leaf of lettuce, the only remaining evidence of a sandwich that once belonged to school aide Sarah Giglio.

“It’s a labor of love,” Giglio said with a laugh as she reached down to pick up the food scraps, referring to life with Brody, the oversized and rambunctious dog that is one of five comfort dogs who spends all day at the school.

Classroom-ready comfort dogs have been a part of school life in New York City since 2014. Now in 45 schools, the comfort dog program will expand to 60 schools by the end of the school year, the city announced last week.

But Shell Bank, also known as J.H.S. 14, pioneered the approach. It was the first school in New York City to enroll in the Department of Education’s Comfort Dog program and the first city school to take part in the “Mutt-I-Gree Curriculum,” a nationwide curriculum developed by Yale University and North Shore Animal League. The program’s goal is to use the love between children and dogs to teach empathy, cooperation, self confidence and other life lessons.

Thanks to early success at schools like Shell Bank, comfort dogs are now walking the hallways and visiting classrooms in more than 4,000 schools across the United States and Canada. While the dogs played a visible role comforting students after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the animals are also part of the day-to-day lives of students facing a variety of challenges.

In 2013, Teri Ahearn became principal at Shell Bank, a school that serves more than 500 students in grades six through eight, about 91% of whom receive free or reduced price lunch, according to city data. During her first year there, she invited puppies from North Shore Animal League to a school assembly to teach the students about empathy and respect. A teacher fell in love with a gray and white border collie, adopted the animal, and later brought the dog, named “Shelby” after the school’s name, to Shell Bank every day. The well-trained and timid pup helped Principal Ahearn see the value of having a therapy dog in the academic workplace in conjunction with the Mutt-I-Gree curriculum and pitched it to then-New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Superintendent Julia Bove, who gave it the go ahead.

Shelby became the first of her kind, assisting in the school’s Mutt-I-Gree elective, a class based around the unique characteristics that develop from taking care of a shelter pet. “The school bought into it from the very beginning,” said Ahearn. “Even the custodians, which is important because accidents happen.”

The Mutt-I-Grees curriculum was developed in 2010 by Matia Finn-Stevenson, Director of Yale University’s School of the 21st Century, in an effort to bring social-emotional learning skills into the classroom. The School of the 21st Century researches and develops a wide-range of national models that helps educators create lesson plans. The curriculum focuses on fostering empathy, decision-making skills, and cooperation among students.

Once implemented, the program’s impact was analyzed by Yale researchers, finding that it resulted in significantly higher levels of empathy, prosocial behaviors, and a positive school climate.

Principal Ahearn argues that it is not only benefitting her students socially, but it is academically rewarding as well. That’s why she’s strict about keeping her office door open so that students dealing with anything from relationship issues to academic problems can come and play with the dogs whenever they choose.

Given students and teachers’ love for Shelby, it did not take long for Brody, Molly, Laney, and Banksy to join the school. The dogs live with different teachers from Shell Bank and are trained by both North Shore Animal League as well as a private trainer hired by the school. Though all instructed by the same trainers, each dog has adopted different roles at Shell Bank. Banksy works directly with the school’s guidance counselor as a therapy dog. Bruno has the ability to break up fights between classmates by gently nudging his head in the middle of a dispute. The dogs have been monitors in the halls, as well as comic relief in the middle school’s increasingly competitive academic environment. Ahearn can often be seen in her high heels walking the dogs around the school while children look out the window at her and laugh at the sight.

“I answer the phone, I pick up poop,” said Ahearn. “Seeing the kids excited about this trumps every critique of dogs being allowed in school.”

Indeed, there are some health concerns. In an effort to be transparent about the program, Ahearn distributes waivers at the beginning of each school year informing parents that dogs are on school grounds. Last year was the first year Shell Bank had some students allergic to dogs. Other parents instruct their children not to pet them because of cultural deterrents. One family believes dogs carry dirt and disease, so safeguards must be in place to prevent an encounter between the child and any one of the five pets.

Though she has yet to face complete opposition, Ahearn said the program would not work unless it is 100-percent structured and carefully analyzed to understand each student’s needs. And she was happy to hear about the program’s expansion last week.

“They can be such an asset to the schools themselves if used effectively,” she said of the dogs. “It is so multifaceted that you don’t realize how many times a dog can be utilized with kids. They are conversation starters, teach lessons on friendship, an outlet for expressing feelings.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.