AN INTERVIEW WITH EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AMY TAYLOR.
Please describe SitStayRead in 1-2 sentences.
SitStayRead (SSR) is Chicago’s only literacy organization harnessing the power of the human-dog bond for young readers to become an enthusiastic, proficient reader and realize their possibilities. Our mission is to advance children’s literacy skills with certified reading assistance dogs, trained literacy volunteers, and a bilingual curriculum with an intentional focus on building confident readers.
How did the idea of SitStayRead come to be? (Why children's literacy? Why certified dogs?)
In 2003, three women active in the field of animal-assisted therapy needed a way to refocus the work of their aging dogs in a less active setting. Originally conceived as a community outreach program at Call of the Wild School for Dogs, the pilot was hosted at the Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square.
The focus shifted shortly after to school settings with a specialized curriculum at Hendricks Community School in Bronzeville as the first site. Today, SSR is in 17 partner schools, serving 2000 students in 100 classrooms with the help of 216 literacy volunteers and 88 certified reading dogs.
How do you find the dogs and children you work with, and how do you connect them? What is that process like?
Our partner schools are primarily Chicago Public Schools where the student population is at least 90% low-income, and 60% of the third grade students are reading below grade-level.
Our volunteers are recruited throughout the city with an intentional focus on neighborhoods where our schools are located. SitStayRead Dog Team volunteers go through extensive training to prepare for their in-classroom work, and must pass the SitStayRead Dog Team Test with their pup. This evaluation was created in partnership with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, to ensure that every dog in our program meets our standards.
How have you had to adapt during the pandemic? Any silver linings?
The pandemic led many of our school partners to online learning. SitStayRead pivoted to serve our students by creating a virtual curriculum called SitStayRead+. We developed lessons in both English and Spanish for Kindergarten through 3rd grade students to make sure teachers had a literacy resource in a changing education landscape.
SitStayRead+ was created to be highly interactive with virtual activities paired with engaging videos led by our staff, volunteers and their pets to further help students. Every child also received an at-home learning kit which included activity books with paper versions of every lesson, writing and drawing supplies, and books; allowing students to complete the lessons off-screen and supporting accessibility for students with unreliable internet access. As schools return to in-person learning, the SitStayRead+ curriculum will continue to be part of SSR’s regular program offerings.
What has been one of the greatest challenges you've had to overcome so far in your nonprofit's journey? How have you worked to overcome it?
The pandemic has been one of our biggest challenges as being in the classroom with our students, dogs, and volunteers is the heart of SitStayRead. On the flip side, the pandemic also allowed SitStayRead a moment to pause and create a brand new way to support our students and teachers virtually, which ultimately provides us with a new way to interact with our students.
And what have been some of your happiest or proudest moments since launching Sit Stay Read? What "fuels" you throughout it all?
Our proudest moments are when we see our students become confident readers or write their first story.
Feeling successful when reading is something all students should experience. Yet, low reading achievement does not equally affect all students. Children growing up in low-income communities are more than four times less likely to enter Kindergarten school-ready than their peers in higher income communities. This data suggests that greater efforts are needed to improve our education system for all children.
SitStayRead recognizes the ambition, curiosity, and limitless courage that exists within our students, and centers our work around these assets. By pairing our curriculum with certified reading assistance dogs, we transform the learning environment for our students to find joy and confidence in reading, while building their literacy skills.
There are so many benefits to incorporating dog-assisted learning into our program When kids read to dogs, they feel relaxed and less worried about making mistakes. This allows them to approach their world with the ambition, curiosity, and limitless courage all young students have.
What could readers do today to support your mission?
Investing in SitStayRead is the best way to support our mission. You can head to our website to learn more about our work. Readers can also donate the books on Wishlist - which will go directly to our students and partner school libraries to ensure kids keep reading!
Together with our students, partner schools, and supporters, we work to create the opportunity and inspiration to become enthusiastic, proficient readers and realize their possibilities.
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