Whether it’s the school’s reading dog or the opportunity to read with a grandparent – Plew Elementary School continues to innovate new ways to help students excel.
Plew, along with Edge Elementary and Ruckel Middle School, are some of the seven schools in Okaloosa County that have introduced the program to children in their Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program. The program is for children with special classroom needs or learning disabilities.
Dan Holmes spends four days a week out of his retirement reading with children and his dog, Elsa. It’s non-profit work he’s enjoyed doing with a smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes since 2017.
Elsa, for her part, loves the kids she comes into contact with every day. She calmly lays next to them while they read stories to her – 30 minutes at a time – to improve their reading skills. Elsa came to the program and Dan from the side of a roadway in Walton County. Holmes began working at the Alaqua Animal Refuge near Freeport after he retired. One day, Elsa came in from the wild – in rough shape. “I fell in love,” Holmes remembers, “They brought her in, she was a mess.I mean, they just found her wandering out on 331 near DeFuniak Springs. She was 63 pounds (the typical female Pyrenes weighs 85-115 pounds as an adult) and had heartworm. When I got her back home, she was so laid back. I felt like she would be great at this work,” Holmes said.
Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) started 25 years ago in conjunction with the Intermountain Therapy Animals Charity in Salt Lake City. The program puts trained service animals, like Elsa, in classrooms to help children build confidence in their reading. But it wasn’t easy, initially, to get the program into Okaloosa County Public Schools. “I started trying to get [the READ program] in Okaloosa County Schools with the previous [Former superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools, Mary Beth Jackson] administration,” Holmes said, “So I went over to Rocky Bayou Christian School. We did it there a year, because they didn’t have all of the bureaucracy of Okaloosa County. Finally, when Marcus Chambers took over, he was real receptive to the program.” After Chambers took over the superintendent’s role in the wake of the previous administration’s child abuse cover-up allegations that ended with the dismissal of Jackson by Governor Ron DeSantis. In a short time, he blazed a pathway for Dan and Elsa to work in the school district. “He cut through all the red tape and the bureaucracy that Walton County, for example, had to go through. It took [READ] almost a year [to begin helping kids]. They had to go through their school board lawyers and all of this stuff,” Holmes remembers, “and within two weeks of meeting Marcus, [the program] was approved all across Okaloosa County.”
At this point in the program’s lifespan in Okaloosa County – their biggest problem is capacity. There are just too few dogs and handlers who can assist children. Each Dog-Handler team can read to six children for 30 minutes per day. That means many kids don’t get a shot at participating in the program. Those that do get in, including the six children at Plew Elementary, vow to read every night to cement their gains from reading with Elsa.
The successful outcome for the students in the program is the ability to read better, sure. But the other benefits to the students, like self-confidence, shouldn’t be ignored either. It makes up for some of the problems students come to school with. “It helps students feel more comfortable with reading,” said Media Specialist and Librarian Shawna Crist, “not to see it as something that they’re not good at. This helps build self-esteem and encourages them.”
That’s exactly what Holmes found with the students as well. “They not only become better readers, but their confidence is built. Most of the kids that we get early on will be shy. Reading in front of the class is just terrifying to them,” Holmes noted, “Well, by the end of the year, there’s the first hand that goes up in the air when the teacher says, ‘who want to read to the class,’ because they figure ‘hey, I’ve read to Elsa already on my own, so I can do this.”
READ has more than 4000 therapy animals nationwide and almost a dozen in various schools around Okaloosa County. Many, like Elsa, read at different schools four days a week. It is almost a full-time job for their volunteer handlers as they work to make the world more confident and literate, one session at a time.
Across the Plew library from the awards ceremony for READ are three small round tables – each with a senior citizen and a small child. Quietly but confidently, the three children each read to their senior.
The tables house another literacy program incubating at Plew Elementary – senior citizens volunteer to read with students for forty-five minutes at a time. Most seniors arrive early – excited to make a difference in a child’s life. The program started after Christmas Break in 2022 in response to the significant drop in general literacy Media Specialist Shawna Crist had seen over the last couple of years. “We just have so many children who are not read to. I don’t know if it is COVID, I don’t know if it’s just our society,” Crist said. Either way, it’s resulted in children having a more challenging time reading themselves. That’s where the grandparents come in. “You don’t have to be a grandparent, you just have to be grand,” Crist said, “They come once a week.” They get to skills and other finer points teachers just can’t get to because of their class load. It helps the grands as well. “This has been amazing, this has been like a lightning strike. Because these grands are patient, they have the time and all of that. The kids need it, because those kids need it.”
Both programs ended on April 20th, so the libraries can prepare for statewide testing. They will start back up when the kids return from summer break in August.
Get the latest news about Niceville and the local area