Sit stay read

Therapy dogs offer unique incentive for struggling readers at Memphis school

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Second-grader Aaleyah Stone reads aloud to Zoe, a therapy dog who visits Keystone Elementary School with her handler, Pam Westphal.

When it comes to reading out loud, it helps to have a good listener. And 7-year-old Aaleyah Stone seems to have found one in Zoe, a Golden Retriever who lies quietly beside her on a reading mat at Keystone Elementary School.

With one hand holding a book and another stroking the fur on Zoe’s back, Aaleyah slowly reads a story about camels to the 4-year-old therapy dog. Meanwhile, Zoe’s handler, Pam Westphal, gently prompts the youngster through difficult words.

Aaleyah was not a confident reader when she began reading twice a month this school year to Zoe and two other therapy dogs that visit Keystone. But along with other second-graders identified as struggling readers, she has gradually improved with the help of her captive canine audience.

“I love the dogs, I just pretend that I’m reading to my doggie at home,” explains Aaleyah, who says she prefers reading to dogs over humans.

Students participating in the Keystone program are given a stuffed dog to take home, and sign a pledge promising they’ll read to their “dog” every night.

Zoe and her handler are part of Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or R.E.A.D, a national program founded in Utah in 1999 and sponsored in Memphis by Mid South Therapy Dogs.

The program is in its second year at Keystone, and teachers say they’re noticing a difference in reading development for students who participate.

Cathy Bickers, a second-grade teacher who has worked at Keystone for 25 years, said working with therapy dogs motivates her students like she’s never seen before. “We’ve had reading achievement incentives in the past, sure, but I would say this really gives the kids an immediate reward,” she said.

Bickers’ assessment aligns with researchers who say students who read to dogs retain better reading skills than those who read to humans because their motivation levels are dramatically higher, according to a 2011 study by the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts.

Other researchers note that the presence of a friendly dog can lower blood pressure and reduce stress when reading.

The idea was brought to Keystone by Karen Buck, a Shelby County Schools social worker who learned about the program and thought it could help young readers who were falling behind their peers.

On last year’s TCAP tests, about 20 percent of Keystone students scored below basic in reading skills, and another 20 percent scored proficient. The vast majority were somewhere in the middle.

Across Tennessee, improving reading scores for elementary-age students has proved challenging in recent years while math and science scores have increased. In response, Gov. Bill Haslam recently launched an initiative by the Tennessee Department of Education to target early readers for development.

Reading therapy dog
PHOTO: Micaela Watts

Reading programs such as R.E.A.D. align with such initiatives by targeting struggling early readers.

Currently, only a handful of schools in the Memphis area participate, but Buck says she’d like to see the program expand.

“This program isn’t any additional cost to Shelby County Schools,” said Buck, who also works at three other schools in the district. “It’s the result of volunteers and grants from Mid South Therapy Dogs, and the kids absolutely love it.”

yeshiva findings

After 3-year probe into yeshivas, city admits it was blocked from visiting many schools, found little instruction in math and English

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of delaying an investigation into whether yeshivas provide an adequate secular education.

At some of New York City’s yeshivas, attendance was voluntary when it came time to learn secular subjects like math and English. Students said they didn’t learn math beyond basic division and fractions. None of the students reported receiving steady lessons in science. 

That’s according to a long-delayed probe by the New York City education department into whether some of the city’s private Jewish schools are providing an adequate secular education for students. But even as the city released findings on Thursday, it admitted that it was never able to go inside any high schools and never received a full set of curriculum materials to evaluate — significant gaps for a report that took three years to be released.

In a letter sent to the state education commissioner on Aug. 15, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza asked the state for guidance on how to proceed after a recent change in law that put the state education commissioner in charge of evaluating the schools. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter. 

“We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education. We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance provided,” Carranza said in a statement.

The letter marks a new phase of an investigation sparked by current and former students and parents who complained they received little instruction in math or English while attending the schools. The city has been accused of delaying the investigation to avoid angering a politically powerful community.

New York requires private schools to provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools, and that allows the schools to access public money for things like school security. Students and parents who were interviewed for the probe said they received instruction in math and English for only 90 minutes for four days out of the week, and all but two said they received “little to no” history lessons, according to the city’s letter.

The report finds that some schools have adopted new curriculums in English and math, but officials have not been able to evaluate the new materials because they haven’t received a complete set.

The city also said that officials at eight of the schools they were unable to visit recently gave word that they would schedule meetings.

Read Carranza’s full letter here.

In the Classroom

Carranza aims to speed up anti-bias training for educators, calling it a ‘cornerstone’ of school improvement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza, bottom right, joined New York City principals and superintendents for an anti-bias training in Brooklyn.

After bending fluorescent pipe cleaners into loopy and angular shapes, a group of about 100 New York City principals and superintendents paired up for a chat. Their assignment: to recount their childhood aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

This was no arts and crafts class — and no ice breaker, either. The Wednesday morning session at Brooklyn Law School was an example of anti-bias training that the education department will now require for every employee who works with students across the country’s largest school system.

After committing $23 million to the work this year, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced at the session that the trainings will be mandatory, and that the city aims to speed up how quickly they happen. The goal is to compress the original four-year roll out to two.

“It’s about us as a community saying we want to change systems so that it privileges all of our students in New York City,” Carranza said. “The evidence right now, I will tell you my friends, is that not all students are being served well.”

Advocates had long agitated for the training, citing disparate rates in school discipline for black and Hispanic students, and high-profile incidents of schools accused of teaching racist lessons in the classroom. They argue that teachers need to be better equipped to serve diverse students as the city moves forward with plans to integrate its starkly segregated schools.

“We have to make school environments the most welcoming places possible for our young people. That includes adults doing personal work,” said Natasha Capers, a coordinator for Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent organization that lobbied for the training.  

Their advocacy has gotten a boost since Carranza became schools chancellor in April, bringing an approach that is bolder and more frank than his predecessor when it comes to addressing the system’s racial inequities. On Wednesday, he spent more than an hour participating in the training session just like the other school leaders, calling it “God’s work.”

“This is going to penetrate everything we do,” he said.

Wednesday’s session was lead by experts from the Perception Institute, a research and training organization, and Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), which provides leadership training. The pipe cleaners helped bring to life a metaphor about “bending” expectations for what educators might learn throughout the day. The one-on-one conversations were a way to “interrupt” stereotypical assumptions about other people by having sustained conversations with them, said trainer Dushaw Hockett.

“This isn’t some touchy-feely, get-to-know-you exercise,” he said.  

There is some evidence that, when done right, anti-bias trainings can work — and improve outcomes for students. But there is also research that shows it can often be ineffective.

Carranza said the city is committed to doing the work for the long-term, with the trainings designed to be ongoing and build on each other. He also said the department will keep an eye on measures such as student attendance and whether teachers report improvements in school climate to gauge whether it’s having an impact.

“This is going to be one of those cornerstone pieces in terms of, how are we going to continue to transform this immense system to really, truly serve all students?” he said. “This is going to be something that’s not going to fall off the radar. We’re going to keep pushing.”