Reading program has a tail to tell

Morgan Zalot | Philadelphia Daily News

In a North Philadelphia classroom yesterday, Eva Hester, 9, shook the paw of Coco Chanel, 14, a poodle almost as tall as she.

“Nice to meet you,” Eva giggled, before sitting down to read Coco a book titled Who Said You Can’t Be the President’s Dog?

Eva is one of about 15 second-graders at the Gesu School, at 17th and Thompson streets, who participated this semester in Wag Tales, a portion of the North Philadelphia school’s Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) literacy program.

Pupils sharpened their skills by reading to dogs one-on-one after school on Tuesdays.

“At first I thought they’d be afraid of the dogs,” said Valerie Haley, a fourth-grade teacher and YET coordinator at the independent Catholic school. “But . . . their reading really picked up and it enhanced [the skills] they already had.”

She saw improvements in the children’s writing, as well.

“When they write [about what they read] now, it’s more detailed,” she said, adding that she thinks Wag Tales is so effective because dogs can’t talk back.

Ariah NewKirk, 8, also participated in the program. She promised volunteer Libby Sherry and Sherry’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Lancelot, that she would continue reading every afternoon during the summer.

“I have three cats, Cassie, Precious and Angel,” Ariah said proudly, adding that she would read to them instead of to the dogs.

At Gesu, the only Philadelphia school with such a program, Wag Tales was spearheaded by Delaware County veterinarian Amy Brenner, who got the idea from “Sit Stay Read,” a similar program in Chicago’s public schools that raised pupils’ test scores.

“The kids come in very relaxed to work with the dogs,” said Brenner, who had volunteered with Gesu’s YET program for two years before beginning Wag Tales. “I find they really focus better.”

With daughter Sarah, 24, and their two West Highland white terriers, Lacey and Mo, she began the program in January. Two clients of her veterinary practice also volunteered with their dogs.

“The kids here are really nice and funny, and they were always happy to read with me,” said Zack Brown, 12, the youngest volunteer, who participated with his grandmother’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Posey.

Wag Tales is still in its pilot phase, and no statistical improvement in Gesu children’s reading has been documented.

But Brenner plans to continue the program next year and even expand it to other grades. “They really make progress,” she said. “The kids come in with big smiles and run to their favorite dogs.”

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