Students at Westport Academy in Baltimore read aloud to dogs that have been brought to the school by the SPCA in an effort to improve the students' reading skills and make them more comfortable reading out loud. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
The gray and white pit bull sat in the center of a circle of fifth-graders, listening attentively as the students took turns reading to him. At times, his droopy eyes appeared to lock with those of the readers.
Four-year-old Knox is one of the “pet ambassadors” who travel to Westport Academy Elementary/Middle School every Tuesday to listen to students read as part of an effort to improve their reading skills and their self-esteem.
Organizers say practicing reading with dogs promotes confidence among students who may struggle to read at grade level. The Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of the country’s oldest animal welfare groups, hasbeen working with the school since January.
“I was one of those kids growing up that reading out loud was scary for me,” said Katie Flory,theMaryland SPCA’s community affairs director. “A lot of the kids here feel the same way. But with the dogs, they don’t have to worry about that. They’re not being judged.”
Similar programs are catching on in animal shelters and schools across the country.
Fewer than 5 percent of students at Westport passed the English Language Arts portion of the statewide assessments last year. Flory said it’s too early to measure what effect reading to dogs mighthave on test scores. But Principal Melody Locke said it has already influenced the culture in the South Baltimore school.
“I can say that interest in reading has definitely increased,” she said. “This is a piece of the puzzle, just getting them interested in picking books up.”
The experience also changed students’ feelings toward reading aloud. At the beginning of the study, students told the researchers that they felt self-conscious, clumsy and uncomfortable reading out loud. By the end, they described it as fun and cool, and said they felt more relaxed when reading to a dog.
When Knox, the pit bull, and Lucy Gaga, a Boston terrier, walk through the Westport doors, they’re immediately enveloped by students who are excited to read to them, pet them, and cuddle with them on fuzzy carpets in the school’s multipurpose room.
“The students always look forward” to reading to the dogs, third-grade teacher Kelsey Stritzinger said. “Their faces light up anytime I say, ‘We have SPCA today.’ ”
Deasia Allen, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, said she has become a more confident reader since the dogs started showing up at her school. She likes it so much that she started reading to her own dog at home. She saidher chihuahua, Missy, is a much more attentive listener than her little sister.
“My dog never gets up and says, ‘I want to leave, this is boring,’ ” Deasiasaid.
About 200 Westport students read to the dogs on an alternating, biweekly schedule.
The students flip through an age-appropriate book with an animal theme. Theyare encouraged to gently help their classmates sound out difficultwords, or point them to the right page should they get lost.
The books tie into larger lesson plans taught by SPCA staffon thehumane treatment of animals. The staff members explain how to greet a dog correctlyand what pet care entails, among other topics.
The SPCA hopes to leave students with more compassion for animals and one another. The students go on field trips to the shelter, and learn how to show love and care tocats and dogs.
Researchers say animal abuse indicatesa person is more likely to also turn to violence against people.
Animal abuse is reported in the area around Westport at a greater rate than in the city as a whole. In the Westport, Mt. Winans and Lakeland neighborhoods, city officials reported 296 calls about animals in danger per 10,000 households in 2016. The citywide average was 177.
“I like how the children respond to the whole idea of being compassionate to animals,” Locke said. “If they’re compassionate to animals, the connection will be made to be compassionate to fellow human beings.”
Locke said she notices students behaving more gently toward one another whenthey read to the dogs. That’s especially important at a school like Westport, she said, where about 30 percent of students have special needsand may be more susceptible to bullying.
The program is funded with a $15,000 grant from the The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The foundation’s Baltimore Library Project has transformed libraries at 14 middle and elementary schools in recent years.
The SPCA hopes to expand the program to more Weinberg libraries in coming years.
“It’s helped some of our more shy students come out of their shells,” said Rachel Duden, a program associate with the foundation. “Reading to the dogs and not feeling like they have to be scared has helped them improve.”