Marzolf Primary students take part in Reading with Rover program -

Marzolf Primary students take part in Reading with Rover program

Friday, December 13, 2019 | 12:01 AM

Marzolf Primary School students excitedly whispered and giggled upon noticing Animal Friends volunteer Kathryn Bort escorting her white boxer down the school’s halls Dec. 9.

The duo didn’t have time to chat, though. They had important work to accomplish through Animal Friends’ Reading with Rover program.

Second-graders enrolled in Marzolf’s Title I reading program took turns reading aloud to Bort and her canine, Dempsey. Across the hall, more students read to volunteer Rita Superior and her shih tzu, Meili. Title I reading specialists Heather DeAngelo and Lori Schultz used timers to ensure that each student read for an allotted period.

“Typically, they’ll sit in a small circle with the dog near them and they’ll read one at a time. Now, in the past, I have had students who don’t feel comfortable with that, so I have done one-on-one, but it really is up to what the student and teacher, as well as what the volunteer prefers,” DeAngelo said.

The state Department of Education-funded Title I program focuses on first- through third-graders who have received below-average scores on annual literacy exams. These students may have improved learning outcomes when working in small groups such as those used in the Reading with Rover program.

“Some students who are very shy in class, I see them open up when they’re reading, especially books that have a lot of dialogue. Sometimes, they’ll change their voices. And just behaviors that takes them a while to exhibit in class, they’ll start to exhibit quicker with the dogs because they’re more relaxed and more comfortable.”

DeAngelo permits students to choose their own books to read on Reading with Rover days, which occur every other month at Marzolf for first- through third-graders. Shaler Area School District’s Scott and Burchfield primary schools also participate in the program.

Leslie Wessner, Animal Friends therapeutic literacy coordinator, said that the Ohio Township-based animal welfare organization donates 10 to 15 humane education-approved books to participating sites for students interested in reading about companion animals during the sessions, including “The Lucky Tales of Two Dogs” by Cathy Rosenthal.

Dempsey got his ears rubbed while listening to other students read their books.

The classes eventually switched rooms so that the students met both dogs.

Animal Friends provides teachers with a dog safety protocol to teach students prior to the start of the program. Worksheets inform students to ask permission prior to petting strangers’ dogs.

“Some volunteers will let the dog sit next to the kids, and they can pet the dog while they are reading. Some prefer to let them wait until they are done reading and wait until the end of the session and then they can pet the dog one at a time, but, again, it’s really volunteer preference,” DeAngelo said.

“These volunteers are wonderful. They give up their time to help the students and the students look forward to every single visit, and they can’t wait until the next visit. And I have seen tremendous growth. I wish more schools could work with Animal Friends.”

Superior retired in 2006 after 34 years of service as a Shaler Area teacher.

“That’s why I did it,” she said of volunteering with her dog, “because I missed the kids so much.”

Student participation in Reading with Rover is optional. A signed parental release is required.

Animal Friends does not charge schools to participate but accepts donations. Participating dogs are certified through Animal Friends’ Therapets pet therapy program.