Learning with Lucky helps young students get into reading

Westview Elementary first-grader Preston Duncan, center, snuggles his new stuffed Labrador puppy during a gathering of classmates being introduced to the Learning with Lucky reading program Oct. 10. (Dan Pelle)
Westview Elementary first-grader Preston Duncan, center, snuggles his new stuffed Labrador puppy during a gathering of classmates being introduced to the Learning with Lucky reading program Oct. 10. (Dan Pelle)

Puppies flew through the air at Westview Elementary earlier this month. The plush yellow and black Labs landed in the outstretched arms of dozens of excited first-graders.

These puppies have an important job: For the rest of the year they will serve as reading buddies to their first grade companions.

The dogs and their accompanying reading logs are part of Learning with Lucky, a reading incentive program. The initiative was created in 2005 in Coeur d’Alene by insurance agent Camy Popiel and elementary teacher Cathy Bayes.

“I’d heard about a program in Western Washington that used a dog in the classroom and I wondered if it would work with stuffed animals, too,” Popiel said.

Bayes crafted the reading plan and Popiel bought 32 puppies at Toys R Us. They launched Learning with Lucky at Bryan Elementary in Coeur d’Alene.

The idea is simple: For each book read, children receive a paw print sticker in their reading log. Teachers customize the reading goals for their classrooms and offer incentives to budding readers. For example, after reading a certain number of books, children get to name their puppy. A few more books means the puppy gets to stay at their desk for the day. Additional rewards include a collar for their dog and charms that can be added to it. The students spend time with their reading buddy each day in the classroom and work together as a “team” on a variety of projects designed to encourage reading. At the end of the school year, the children who’ve met their reading goals get to take their puppy home.

“Teachers say it’s a life-saver,” Popiel said.

Partnering with corporate sponsors allowed the organization to grow rapidly. Learning with Lucky expanded from Coeur d’Alene to Post Falls, Lakeland, Bonner, Kellogg, Moscow and Mullan school districts.

Popiel said in many schools the older grades get involved. “We’ve had high school students make doghouses for the puppies, and the fifth-graders at Winton Elementary in Coeur d’Alene made blankets for the first-graders’ dogs.”

Katrina Kelley, principal of Mullan Trail Elementary in Post Falls, said her school implemented the program several years ago. “It makes a huge difference for these kids. Now, we have younger siblings anticipating getting their puppies.”

Last year, Learning with Lucky landed at Westview, the first school in Washington to launch the initiative. Principal Cathy Comfort said the impact has been profound. “The children really form a relationship with their puppies. Parents tell us the kids read to their pets at home, too!”

At Westview, Learning with Lucky is sponsored by Numerica Credit Union. On Oct. 10, Numerica representatives Amanda Swan and Jody Azevedo delivered the dogs.

The plush puppies were hidden as Azevedo talked to the group. “Do you have a favorite book?” she asked. “Does it have a dog in it?”

Several children raised their hands. Then as “Who Let the Dogs Out?” played from her phone, she and Swan surprised the kids with the toys.

Squeals of excitement echoed as the children clutched the puppies.

As Azevedo explained the reading program, a new reader was concerned. “What if we forget the words?” she asked.

She seemed comforted when Azevedo assured her that grownups would help with the reading.

Another girl asked, “Could we give our puppies a dress?” Azevedo deferred to the teachers on that point, but showed the group the snazzy green collars they could earn.

“The program offers incredible incentive and motivation for our first-graders to sustain independent reading,” Comfort said.

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