Imagine that you attend an event for work, and end up sitting next to someone you click with immediately. Has that ever happened to you? It happened to Barbara LaCorte, principal at Santa Barbara’s Hope Elementary School. The Breakfast With The Authors’ event took place about four years ago, and Barbara happened to sit next to Karen Lee Stevens, Executive Director of All For Animals. Karen was there to talk about her children’s book, Animals Have Feelings, Too!, but after she stared talking to Barbara, Karen presented a new topic: Have therapy dogs come to schools and let kids read to them.
“I said to Karen ‘let’s make this happen,’” recalled Barbara. “I told her I’d volunteer my school for a pilot program.”
And that, as they say, is history. ARF! (Animals + Reading = Fun!) was officially started and continues at Hope School and several other elementary schools throughout Santa Barbara County, as well as at the Santa Barbara Public Library. When asked why she wanted the ARF! program implemented, Barbara had an easy answer. “The comfort level for children who may feel afraid to read aloud in front of their peers is greatly enhanced by having a dog friend who they can cuddle with and pat on the head while reading,” Barbara explained. “We know from cognitive research that fluency builds comprehension skills. We focus on first and second graders because those are critical years for readers.”
At Hope School, the program isn’t just for every student who wants to read to a dog. There would certainly be a line out the door, if that was the case! “This is meant to be fun, for sure, but it’s also an intervention,” confirmed Barbara. “It’s strategic; the teachers select the students they feel would really benefit from this type of program.”
Each Friday, the librarian picks books for each child that matches their independent reading level. “An independent reading level is one that’s not too easy, and not too difficult for the reader. It’s constantly being calibrated to advance as the student’s competency grows.”
Can you quantify the progress that your students in the ARF! program have made, I asked? “We see qualitative, rather than quantitative, results. We see an improvement in self-confidence, and self-esteem. We see the enthusiasm as they skip to the library every Friday.”
Barbara knows that Hope School has benefitted from this collaboration with ARF!, and is so happy to have this organization as a community partner. And it’s not just the people who think so—when those dogs walk in with their purple bandanas, it’s obvious they’re just as excited to see the kids as the kids are to see them.
“The kids are so excited, so eager, and that’s half the battle,” enthused Barbara. “The desire to learn, the desire to be a reader is everything. When you have children who have discovered that desire, that is pure gold.”
To learn more about ARF! and how you can support literacy in our community, click here or call us at: (805) 682-3160.