Stadalsky: School is going to the dogs ... and grandmas
BY KRIS STADALSKY Correspondent November 1, 2013 1:06PM
AJ, a registered therapy dog, listens as fourth-grade students read a Halloween play. | Kris Stadalsky~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 5, 2013 6:08AM
Students at Walnut Trails Elementary School in Shorewood are getting some unique assistance with their reading skills with two new programs this year, and both are big hits with the grade school crowd.
Retired educators and professional women who live in Shorewood Glen retirement community, just down the street, are helping out in the classrooms at Walnut Trails.
The volunteers go in weekly to work with students on their reading comprehension and fluency.
The ladies, who call themselves the School Crew, have found a niche in their community that needed filling. The teachers in turn are getting several extra sets of hands and ears, and the students get needed one-on-one and group time to practice and improve their reading skills.
“We wanted to give back to our community,” volunteer Cindy Onik said. “We have skills and we want to share them.”
It’s like having grandmas in the classroom, say students, teachers and the volunteers themselves.
Most of the women who volunteer are former educators, from teachers to administrators, though it’s not a requirement.
But there are requirements and specific criteria in order to become one of the grandma readers. One is that each volunteer has to write an essay on why she wants to volunteer.
“We wanted to make sure the volunteers are people who can really make a difference for the students and teachers,” Pat Hahto said.
School Crew member Nancy Ortinau just got her first assignment at Walnut Trails a few weeks ago. She taught first grade for 22 years and utilized volunteers in her own classroom.
Since she retired and moved to Shorewood Glen, getting back into the classroom to volunteer is something she’s wanted to do.
Second-grade teacher Kristina Butkovich is very happy with the results she sees.
“I definitely see a huge improvement in their fluency since they are getting the extra reading opportunities,” Butkovich said.
Dog in school
The other reading program new to Walnut Trails this year comes in the form of a therapy dog named AJ.
While AJ can’t actually help children read, he’s a wonderful listener and students build their confidence when they read aloud to him.
Dogs provide a general sense of unconditional support, comfort and happiness to those around them. So when Walnut Trails Principal Kathleen Cheshareck had an opportunity to give AJ — who is registered and certified — a chance to help students, she gave it a try.
The program already has been expanded from AJ listening to special-education and Response to Intervention students to being available to everyone at Walnut Trails.
When students know they are going to read to AJ, they spend extra time practicing their next reading project, honing some of their skills on their own. When they read aloud to the therapy canine, they feel more confident, are more motivated and less concerned about making mistakes in front of their peers — which is why many students dislike reading in front of others.
The students, of course, love the fact that they get to pet a big, lovable dog while they are studying at school.
AJ’s owner, Paula Bosak, said the program is going wonderfully; AJ, a rescued St. Bernard mix, is a very laid-back dog and loves to listen.
Reach Kris Stadalsky at email@example.com.