Canine Companions Help Students Improve Reading Skills

KCPS, Wayside Waifs introduce new Once U-Paw-n A Time program


Kansas City, May 24, 2018: Talking in front of a crowd can be tough. Now imagine you’re a student without strong reading skills, even a reading level or two below most of your peers. Standing up in front of a classroom of friends to read out loud can be an overwhelming, scary prospect.

For many KCPS students, they struggle with reading, especially out loud. Although reading interventions do help, the actual practice of vocalizing a story in a group of peers can be daunting. Enter KCPS’ family support team.

During a visit to George Melcher Elementary over the summer, KCPS Family Support Specialist Brigette Nicholson met with Melcher Principal Patricia Hayes where they discussed low English language arts scores and the students’ unique needs for trauma sensitivity therapy. Thinking outside the traditional classroom, Nicholson suggested a non-traditional tutoring option using rescue animals. Unfortunately, nothing existed in Kansas City. Yet.

Nicholson reached out to Wayside Waifs of Kansas City to inquire about the opportunity to create something to benefit KCPS students. Humane Educator Ashley Stanley and Community Engagement Coordinator Amanda Smasal were intrigued by the idea of expanding Wayside Waifs’ current Community Engagement Program. Over the past several years, Wayside Waifs has worked with other district schools including J.A. Rogers, John T. Hartman, James and Phillis Wheatley to share their anti-bullying, empathy and dog etiquette programs.

The team of Nicholson, Hayes, Stanley and Smasal along with Melcher school counselor Dr. Boni Tolson worked to develop the logistics to bring the canine reading program to fruition. Once U-Paw-n A Time initially planned for a small group of students to read together with their canine companion. Unfortunately, the students were not comfortable reading out loud in front of a crowd. Understanding while students may judge but a dog doesn’t really care if a reader stumbles on a word or two, the leadership team adjusted the format to an individual setting. It was an instant hit!

The program helps students improve their reading skills, build self-confidence, decrease trauma and maintain attendance as participants read stories to their canine companion. A member of Wayside Waifs quietly sits with the student and the dog to help with tough words only when needed.

Students who participate are envied by their peers for the opportunity to spend time with the dogs. The last reader, often holding onto the companion’s leash with the Wayside Waifs volunteer, has the honor of escorting him to the front entrance when finished. Other students are permitted to greet

The result has been amazing.

“It has been a great partnership between Wayside Waifs and KCPS,” Hayes said. “The students love reading to the animals and their reading skills have greatly improved.”

Sampson, a regular companion at Melcher, not only enjoys a student’s attention as they read during his visits to Melcher but also appreciates the attention from other Melcher students. Smasal, who serves as Sampson’s human during his visits to Melcher, gets to see first-hand the power of the new program.

“One student recently reported the individual reading out loud sessions helped to decrease stuttering difficulties,” Nicholson said. “It is heartwarming to see the change in the students’ demeanor. The smiles and giggles are priceless!”

After success at Melcher, One U-Paw-n A Time was launched at Faxon Elementary at the beginning of the new year to help more students with their own canine companion Winston and his human Matt Thuet. Students with special needs, including those requiring visual assistance, are enjoying tactile encounters.

“Our students love Winston,” Faxon Principal Kathleen Snipes said. “This program is a great asset to our school.”

“We are having a ‘tale’ wagging fun time learning in the Once U-Paw-n A Time program,” Nicholson said.

To learn more about Wayside Waifs and their programs, visit their website.