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Shelter Pets Help Warren County Students Improve Reading, Confidence

Credit Abbey Oldham
Left to Right: Bway Baw, Soe Meh, Graciella Ventura, Cathy Roemer-Garrison, Boon Mee, and Lin Aung from Henry F. Moss Middle School.

Cathy Roemer-Garrison is always looking out for innovative ways to teach.  She’s an English as a Second Language instructor at Moss Middle School in Warren County. 

"I came across on the Internet something about children reading to shelter animals, and that the research showed it was successful at improving reading fluency and building self-esteem, which is a perfect fit for my ELL kids," explained Roemer-Garrison.

She took the idea to Principal David Nole, who admits he was skeptical at first.

"I thought, 'How's that going to improve what we're doing?'  The more I listened the more I realized she was going about the heart of the reader, and that's just developing the love to read," Nole said.

"They're coming out of their shells."

And so it began.  An initiative called Paw Pals: Literacy with Love.  Every Wednesday, Roemer-Garrison visits the Bowling Green-Warren County Humane Society with a group of ELL students, or English Language Learners.  Most are from war-torn countries, but at the shelter, those memories are overcome with smiles and laughter.

On this visit, a shelter employee brings out eight-week-old long-haired Chihuahuas.

Seventh graders Graciella Ventura of El Salvador, and Soe Meh and Bway Baw both of Thailand, sit in a circle, each holding a puppy and a book.  Storytime is about to begin.  Ventura has a wide grin as one of the puppies licks her face.

"Just be very gentle, he's a baby," instructs Roemer-Garrison.  "Okay I need you to get out your books."

The puppies aren’t exactly a captive audience, but the kids don’t seem to mind.  The puppies wiggle themselves free from their readers’ arms to wrestle on the floor and tug on shoe laces.

In another room, students Boon Mee and Lin Aung both of Thailand meet a large, timid Doberman.

"We have to gain their trust just like when you come from another country, I have to gain your trust to let you know it's going to be okay," explains Roemer-Garrison.

After the first week of visiting the shelter, students’ test scores rose, as did their self-esteem.

"One of the teachers came to me and said, 'I have to tell you one of the kids spoke to me first and looked me in the eye,' remarked Roemer-Garrison.  "Typically, a lot of our kids are so afraid of mispronouncing a word or being critiqued with their language, they will turn their head away or look down instead of making eye contact or speaking to an adult."

For Principal David Nole, it’s been amazing the see how the kids have transformed in the few weeks since the program began.

"They're coming out of their shells," he said.  "They're so excited about returning to the shelter."

Shelter Director Lorri Hare calls the partnership a win-win.  While the students are improving their literacy skills, the animals are getting the affection they need.

"Any type of socialization makes shelter pets more adoptable," said Hare.  "When they're surrendered or get picked up as strays, being in a shelter, if they don't get one-on-one attention, they can kind of disconnect with people, so keeping them social or hands on helps them get adopted."

Student Graciella Ventura now looks forward to Wednesdays.

"We can practice our speaking and read for them so they can be happy," she commented.

For animal lover and teacher Cathy Roemer-Garrison says the program combines her two passions.

"Animal shelters are my passion and teaching is my passion, so to bring the two of them together is an amazing opportunity," she adds.

Talks are underway to possibly expand the program district wide.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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