Kaina (owner Carly Krug) at Bark 'n Ball. (Photos courtesy of SitStayRead.)

It’s no secret that Chicago’s inner-city public schools face an ever-increasing list of challenges. Chief among them are low test scores and widespread learning difficulties. In 2014, 43.6 percent of third through eighth graders did not meet the Illinois Standards Achievement Test benchmark for reading proficiency.

Luckily, students in 16 different schools are getting help with their reading fluency from an unlikely source: volunteer dogs. The organization SitStayRead, which was founded in 2003, aims to improve literacy skills in Chicago’s neediest schools. More than 2,500 kids are receiving assistance from volunteers and their dogs. Students in first through fourth grade work on a number of reading and writing assignments using the SitStayRead curriculum, and the numbers are astounding: In 2014, students in the program made 47.8 percent greater fluency gains than their non-participating peers.

Bradley Blakenship & Cozy Fan Tooty (board member) at Bark 'n Ball. (Photo courtesy of SitStayRead)

Board Member Bradley Blakenship and Cozy Fan Tooty at SitStayRead’s Bark ‘n Ball.

SitStayRead was one of Make It Better’s Philanthropy Award winners in 2014. At that time, they were serving 76 classrooms and 2,021 children. Now, their numbers have grown as the organization has expanded to 80 classrooms and five Chicagoland community centers.

Mara O’Brien, who came on as the executive director in February of this year, has already found the experience incredibly rewarding. She also feels a deep connection to the program since her children are enrolled in Chicago Public Schools.

“I wanted to give back to my community. I felt like I could make an impact here,” says O’Brien, who previously worked as a fifth-grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools and as the executive director of the educational nonprofit 826CHI for seven years. “I kind of feel like there are three camps in my personality: my education camp, my development and fundraising background and then my work as an executive director. This job allowed me to put together all three and make an impact.”

SitStayRead encourages a positive, holistic approach to reading. Not only do students get to read dog-themed books alongside the pups (which leads to interactive and lasting learning), these dogs won’t judge or correct or get impatient when students are slow to sound out vowels and consonants.

Program Director Kate McIlvain says SitStayRead has seen a positive uptick in numbers as the years have passed. While their volunteer numbers have remained relatively static, the number of kids served has increased significantly.

“We always grow a little bit from year to year. We try to be strategic and thoughtful,” McIlvain says. “We always add a bit every year but three new schools in one year is a bigger jump than usual for us.”

In the 2015–2016 school year, 22 new Certified Reading Assistance dogs joined the team and 485 in-classroom hours were donated.

A canine guest at the Bark 'n Ball event. (Photo courtesy of SitStayRead)

Lily Lam with dog Mooshu at the Bark ‘n Ball event.

Since O’Brien has joined the SitStayRead team, the most pressing issue has been to increase the volunteer base to match the number of students served.

“That’s our most short-term priority as we get ready to jump into the next school year,” McIlvain says. “[We’re] already getting started in our planning process. From a program standpoint, that’s the most immediate need right now.”

At their largest-ever charity event, the Bark ‘n Ball held Friday, April 15 (a dog-friendly event, if you were wondering), the goal was to continue to raise awareness about the organization rather than monetary donations. With more than 15 event sponsors and 50 auction items (and four luxe package deals including a Caribbean getaway and a behind-the-scenes tour of the penguin exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium), the Bark ‘n Ball was unquestionably a success.

Benjamin Sinaiko and his dog, Matilda, at SitStayRead's Bark 'n Ball.

Benjamin Sinaiko and his dog, Matilda, at Bark ‘n Ball.

Our goal was to sell 300 tickets and we met that goal,” O’Brien says. “We made goals more making sure the right people will be in the room. We’re as much into having people hear our story as raising money.”

Last year’s charity event netted over $54,000 and both O’Brien and McIlvain expect to exceed that number this year.

Long-term goals for the organization include planning for thoughtful expansion.

Are we going to try and see more classrooms? More schools? Make a bigger impact in the schools we’re already in? Thinking about expanding to a place like Waukegan and partnering with a nonprofit up there?” O’Brien asks. “[We want to look at] what makes the most impact and what makes the most sense.”

Though O’Brien is a recent addition to the SitStayRead team, McIlvain says she has been willing to jump right in.

“That’s actually my favorite part [about SitStayRead], is showing people our program,” McIlvain says. “When Mara came onboard she was just so willing … to come right into the classroom.”

That being said, it doesn’t seem like the classroom is such a tough place to be. The overall atmosphere of SitStayRead is so positive it’s hardly a surprise that children struggling with literacy are capable of making such gains with people (and animals) who care by their sides.

“[SitStayRead] really holds everything about sharing the best of who we are with other people,” O’Brien says. “It only takes you one visit to a classroom to see what an impact it can have on the students.”

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