Pup gets an ed­u­ca­tion along with stu­dents at Parish School

Houston Chronicle - - MEMORIAL COMMUNITY EXTRA - By Lind­say Pey­ton

The most pop­u­lar stu­dent at the Parish School looks a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than her class­mates.

This stu­dent has four legs, floppy ears and a tail.

Flight, a 3-month-old golden re­triever Labrador mix, is go­ing to school to learn the skills she will need to be­come an as­sis­tance dog, help­ing in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties.

Teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors say the chil­dren are learn­ing just as much from her as she is from them.

“The un­fore­seen ben­e­fits that we have ex­pe­ri­enced are be­yond what we could have ever imag­ined,” said Heather Hillery, the teacher who came up with the idea. “We’ve been su­per lucky hav­ing this puppy on cam­pus.”

Hillery is a speech­language pathol­o­gist who works with stu­dents with com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­lays and learn­ing dif­fer­ences at the Parish School, 11001 Ham­merly Blvd.

She had wanted to raise an as­sis­tance dog and be­lieved that stu­dents at the school would be the ideal

can­di­dates to help train a spe­cial puppy.

Hillery ap­proached head of school Nancy Bew­ley with the con­cept.

“I im­me­di­ately said yes,” Bew­ley said.

“I like in­no­va­tive pro­grams and I like to use ev­ery av­enue of learn­ing.”

Look­ing for all pos­si­ble ways to help stu­dents do their best is key at the Parish School, which ed­u­cates chil­dren ages 2-12 who have spe­cial needs.

“We want to em­power chil­dren,” Bew­ley said.

“We want them to ex­pe­ri­ence a learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment where they will thrive.

“We want them to be­come life­long learn­ers and we don’t want them to just grow, we want them to thrive.”

She is al­ways on the look­out for new ideas to help the school achieve these goals.

“When we know some­thing will ben­e­fit the kids, we can get it started right away,” she said.

“The quicker, the bet­ter. It’s all about be­ing open to new ideas.”

Once Bew­ley gave the go-ahead, Hillery put in an ap­pli­ca­tion with Ca­nine Com­pan­ions for In­de­pen­dence, a non­profit pro­gram that trains and places highly skilled as­sis­tance dogs with adults or chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, en­tirely free of charge.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion breeds Labrador and golden re­triever pup­pies — and once they are ready to leave their mother, they are placed with vol­un­teers for 14-to-18 months.

Vol­un­teers in­cur the costs of rais­ing the pup­pies and train them for the im­por­tant jobs that await.

In the few weeks that Flight has been on the Parish School cam­pus, Hillery said a pos­i­tive im­pact has al­ready been made in the class­rooms.

She tells her stu­dents that they have an im­por­tant re­spon­si­bil­ity rais­ing the puppy and that they have to keep her calm by be­ing peace­ful them­selves.

Stu­dents have told her that help­ing Flight has made it eas­ier for them to stay calm too.

“They keep still; they make eye con­tact with her,” Hillery said. “This is pow­er­ful. It’s magic.”

She said many stu­dents at The Parish School ex­hibit signs of anx­i­ety and emo­tional in­sta­bil­ity tied to their learn­ing dif­fer­ences and dif­fi­culty com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

Flight, how­ever, helps them find in­ner peace. Typ­i­cally, af­ter a few min­utes sit­ting by her ken­nel, stu­dents re­join the class­room ready to fo­cus and par­tic­i­pate in class­room ac­tiv­i­ties.

The chil­dren are keep­ing a jour­nal of Flight’s jour­ney at the school.

They write ar­ti­cle and sto­ries about her and the puppy has even in­spired art­work.

For stu­dents who of­ten avoid writ­ing and talk­ing, the puppy has been the best pos­si­ble muse, Hillery added.

“The chil­dren come home and talk about the puppy, when they used to not con­verse at all,” Hillery said.

“And they jump out of the car in the morn­ing when they get to school.”

They were ea­ger to see the puppy.

One fifth-grade stu­dent, Trey Bryant, 11, wrote a spe­cial edi­tion of the class news­pa­per to tell every­one about Flight and what an im­por­tant task rais­ing an as­sis­tance dog can be.

“When I first saw her, I wanted to have her in my class all the time, be­cause she is a spe­cial dog,” he said.

“I know that she will go to some­one who loves her, and they will want to thank us for keep­ing Flight when she was a puppy.”

Flight will stay at the school un­til early Novem­ber 2017 and then will be tested to see if she is a can­di­date for serv­ing as an as­sis­tance dog.

“If she’s ac­cepted, we’ve done our job,” Hillery said.

“Then, I will put my name in for an­other dog. I would ab­so­lutely do this again.”

Bew­ley added that she has no­ticed that Flight has been an as­set at the school.

“It’s really been a trans­for­ma­tion for our stu­dents,” she said.

“An­i­mals bring out the best in peo­ple.

“Many chil­dren who strug­gle to com­mu­ni­cate with hu­mans are able to re­lax when they com­mu­ni­cate with an­i­mals.”

Hillery hopes other area schools will con­sider rais­ing ser­vice dogs.

“I would love to see other schools get on board with this,” she said.

“The ben­e­fits are just too nu­mer­ous to talk about.”

For de­tails on the school, call 713-467-4696 or go to www.parish­school. org.

Par­ish School

Par­ish School teacher Heather Hillery and Flight, the ser­vice dog-in-train­ing, share a teach­ing mo­ment.

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