On a sunny spring morning, 11-year-olds Justin, Timia, and Marqual are tending to Oreo and Cookie Dough, their classroom guinea pigs at Savoy Elementary in DC’s Anacostia. They’ve each been assigned jobs by their special-education teacher, Andrea Webb: Justin and Marqual rinse lettuce and cut cantaloupe with a plastic knife while Timia keeps Cookie Dough from scarfing down Oreo’s share.
The pets have become a point of pride for Webb’s class. The previous week, the kids gave a presentation to first-graders about what guinea pigs eat, where they come from (Peru), and how to care for them. When actress Kerry Washington visited as part of a White House program to help low-performing schools, she took a turn holding Oreo and Cookie Dough.
But Webb says the animals have given her students something more important than bragging rights. In an area where rough home lives and behavioral problems are common, she credits the guinea pigs with calming her students and teaching them empathy—a trait she says often gets lost in their neighborhoods, which are among the District’s poorest and most crime-ridden.
The soothing effect of pets, particularly on children, has been well documented. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon bombings, teams of “comfort dogs” were dispatched to console victims and community members. But for kids who come from troubled families or who battle learning disabilities, it doesn’t take a national tragedy to cause anxiety—their daily struggles are stressful enough. Experts say these students can especially benefit from learning alongside animals.
Webb got her guinea pigs with the help of a grant from the nonprofit Pet Care Trust in Bel Air, Maryland. The organization’s Pets in the Classroom program has funded more than 21,000 classroom pets in the US and Canada since it was launched three years ago. In Washington, 150-plus teachers have received a grant from the group to offset the costs of aquariums, bedding, cages, food, and the animals themselves—expenses that would otherwise have been left to teachers to cover on their own, because school budgets are tapped out.
“Having a classroom pet really does make a big difference,” the trust’s executive director, Steve King, says; the animals teach responsibility and spark a fascination with the natural world. Grants, from $50 to $192 per teacher, are applied for and approved online.
Brinda Jegatheesan, an associate professor at the University of Washington who specializes in the bond between animals and children, has studied cultures around the world where parents have used animals or animal stories for centuries to instill social morals in their kids. “Many of these children learn how to be kind to each other by learning how to be kind to an animal,” she says.
In the United States, Jegatheesan explains, learning with pets adds an element of compassion to an education system that often rewards test scores over character. Boys, who typically have fewer opportunities to practice nurturing behavior than girls, particularly stand to gain. She believes that if more classrooms incorporated pets into the curriculum, school violence would decrease.
At Cresthaven Elementary in Silver Spring, Jeanette Golden and her Labrador, Tucker, greet a boy named Angel in the hallway outside his fourth-grade classroom.
Angel is one of four students at the school who meet weekly with Tucker or another dog as part of the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program of National Capital Therapy Dogs. For today’s session, Angel will read The Best School Year Ever to Tucker, but not before the dog wets the boy’s face with kisses, sending him into giggles. Angel’s reaction is just what the program aims to achieve. The dogs allow kids who are usually intimidated by reading to relax.
“It’s fun, it’s nonjudgmental,” says Cresthaven principal Sherri Gorden. Her teachers have reported seeing students’ test scores and self-esteem improve. At another local school that participates in READ, a first-grader was voted most improved reader in his class. His parents told organizers that their son “practices at home to be good for the dog.”
As Angel settles onto a blanket and starts sounding out the words, Tucker rests his head in the boy’s lap. “He’s a really nice dog,” Angel says.
Kids don’t connect only with cuddly animals. Cherie Jacobs, a teacher at Annandale’s private Oakwood School for children with special needs, incorporates the classroom gecko into her curriculum as often as possible.
The lizard got his name, Geico Jr., after Jacobs had her second- and third-graders vote on what to call him as part of a lesson plan about elections. She says involving Geico Jr.—who also came from a Pets in the Classroom grant—motivates the kids to learn. Steve King, the Pet Care Trust’s director, says lizards, snakes, and other reptiles make up 25 percent of grant requests: “The first time students hold one, it just opens up a whole new world. What had been something fearful becomes something they really understand and cherish.”
Back at Cresthaven Elementary, it’s ten-year-old Elizabeth’s turn to read with Tucker. The girl, an immigrant from Cameroon, is timid around the Labrador, but she’s made progress since they met at the beginning of the school year. She now pets Tucker and holds his leash while they walk together. As Elizabeth reads aloud in her small, scratchy voice, she trips over a word.
“Tucker doesn’t know that word, either,” Jeanette Golden, his owner, says gently before explaining what a “podium” is to both the little girl and the dog.
After Elizabeth finishes the assigned chapters, she and Golden head down the hallway with Tucker, his tail wagging. With each tap of Elizabeth’s patent-leather Mary Janes on the tile, more kids crowd into classroom doorways to catch a glimpse. Some shout, “Hi, Tucker!”
For this moment, Elizabeth is the most special girl in school.
Gwendolyn Purdom is a writer and editor who recently relocated from Washington to Chicago.
This article appears in the July 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.