SUSSEX COUNTY, N.J. — Once a week, a special guest pays a visit to the students at Sandyston Walpack Elementary School. It’s not a local politician or YouTube star, but one with four legs and one of the furriest coats they have ever touched.
At 150 pounds, Tyler, a 4-year-old Great Pyrenees, has become the school’s most lovable — and huggable — staff member. He even sports his own school ID.
As part of a reading program called “Dog Tales,” each week the therapy dog and his handler John Coco come to the school, where their sheer presence alleviates stress among students and staff, bringing normalcy and a sense of calm in the classroom.
The creative learning approach is the brainchild of Principal Dr. Harold Abraham who wanted to bring additional support and comfort to students already navigating obstacles spurred on by COVID-19.
“Students were so desperately seeking interaction,” Dr. Abraham told PIX11 News. “This program was able to provide that to kids and allow them to be hands-on learners again.”
On the morning PIX11 visited, the students had a little surprise for Tyler and Mr. John: homemade treats to thank them for reading with the class — something that happens on a volunteer basis.
“I had a mother last week come up to me and say that her son has improved so much in reading,” Coco told PIX11 News. “He’s reading at home now, so that’s enough payment, that’s very good payment.”
Studies show the pandemic has taken its toll on students nationwide where many are not performing to where they should be.
However, at Sandyston Walpack Elementary, administrators say they have stayed the course — and they are crediting most of that to Tyler.
“I wasn’t the biggest fan of reading, but like, having someone there with you to read, it was a great thing,” 6th grader Sam Mahoney said. “It kind of motivates you to want to read.”
With a 98% attendance rate, many of the students are exceeding expectations. The reading program is also making a major impact on students’ social emotional development.
Fifth grader J.J. Ramos says his grades and mood have significantly improved since Tyler joined the class.
“Sometimes I have stressful days, and when I go to school and I see Tyler, it just makes my day much happier,” he said.
As the school year forges ahead, the reading program is set to expand next year, with Tyler’s brother Charlie joining the team to keep these children on their toes and their noses in the books.