Portland, OR. At Sitton School in North Portland, kids picked out their favorite books to share with a new friend—a black and white poodle named Molly, who is just there to listen. Jose struggled but was excited to share a soccer book with Molly as part of “Shadow Day.”  The annual event on February 14th was organized by The Shadow Project which was founded in 2003 (and named for a special dog) to provide students with learning challenges the tools they need to succeed in the classroom. (Photo credit, Ben Brink)

Sherry Amspacher and Molly are from Columbia River Pet Partners. They listen to a student read in Sitton Elementary’s SuperSensory Literacy Space, a unique sensory library created by The Shadow Project to instill calm and focus in kids with learning challenges like dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and speech/language disorders. (Photo Ben Brink)

Struggling readers show courage by reading aloud to dogs.

For many children with learning challenges like dyslexia, who are behind in reading levels, the idea of sharing a book aloud is fraught with anxiety. Finding the courage to overcome the fear of reading can be a battle.“I don’t like reading because I’m not good at it,” says fifth grader Kaleah.

Educators say that dogs make great reading partners because they can gently nudge students to keep going, or strategically place a paw to offer support and enhance focus. Dogs also have a calming effect that can reduce anxiety, and their quiet presence boosts confidence, courage … and reading comprehension.

Indeed, Molly quietly lays on her blanket and sets her chin on the kids’ legs, closing her eyes to the soft sound of the students’ reading. No matter that their words are sometimes halting. No matter that they miss some words or mix up letters. Molly patiently listens, and the kids finish their books and forget for a moment their struggles with reading.

“That was so fun!” says Kaleah. “I can’t wait to read again!”

Shadow Day is an annual event to honor Shadow, a dog born on Valentine’s Day, who is the inspiration behind the nonprofit Shadow Project. The Shadow Project arranged for Molly’s visit in collaboration with Columbia River Pet Partners to celebrate its 15th anniversary in Portland Public schools, and the fourth year in the district’s innovative, collaborative Read Together initiative, which is focused on literacy in underserved schools.

“Year after year, two-thirds of Oregon children with disabilities miss the critical benchmark of third grade reading proficiency that predicts high school graduation,” says Shadow Project Founder and Executive Director Christy Scattarella. “If our community is truly committed to increasing graduation rates, we urgently need to address the overlooked one in eight children who learn differently. Providing students with learning disabilities access to the tools they need to achieve is critical.”

The Shadow Project began in two classrooms in Duniway School, becoming a 501(3) organization in 2003. Since then, Shadow has fostered success for more than 11,000 Portland children with learning challenges.

“I am so grateful to The Shadow Project for their vision and leadership in our schools,” says Bish. “They are integral to our program of serving students with more intensive learning and behavior support needs.”

For more information, go to shadow-project.org.

History:

The Shadow Project was initiated in 1997 by a Portland, Ore., mom whose son struggled with reading, writing, and spelling, due to dyslexia and ADD. Bright and creative second-grader Alex was so discouraged in school that he was often reduced to tears, gripping his pencil so hard that it tore the paper. His mom, Christy Scattarella, worried that the challenge of learning would shred his spirit, as well.11 Real Alex shadow

One day, Alex came home beaming, proudly showing his mom the thrift store Garfield he had earned in his special education class for setting and achieving a reading goal. Christy said he was like an Olympic athlete in his excitement over his achievement.

But that night, Alex’s puppy, Shadow, chewed Garfield to shreds. Alex was devastated.

Christy offered Alex a new stuffed animal, but Alex refused saying, “It wouldn’t be the same. Garfield was special because I EARNED him.”

Inspired by the powerful lesson her eight-year-old was teaching about perseverance and pride in accomplishment, Christy began researching children with learning disabilities, discovering that children in special education are one of the country’s highest at risk populations. She also learned that her son’s special education teacher was spending nearly $1,000 each school year — not uncommon for these peerless educators — on thrift store incentives in an attempt to prevent the early discouragement that often portends devastating failure.

Christy felt the success of children with learning challenges should be a community concern and that more support was needed for special education teachers, in order to create courageous kids, boost reading scores, and improve graduation rates. She came up with a plan to broaden Alex’s teacher’s strategy. With Portland Public School District’s encouragement, Christy offered her program — The Shadow Project, named after Alex’s dog — to two classrooms, for a total of 40 students.

Over the next six years, The Shadow Project evolved from an all-volunteer operation into a full-scale goal-setting program for 1,000 children in special education. In 2003, The Shadow Project became a 501(c)3 organization.

In 2004, the Portland Public School District donated space for The Shadow Project to house the books and literacy supplies provided to teachers utilizing the goal-setting program. The following year, the organization hired its first paid staff member, a half-time program administrator.

Social Venture Partners Portland gave The Shadow Project a three-year grant in 2007, as well as expert volunteer assistance on its first strategic plan, leading to multiple program enhancements, including a new warehouse inventory system and a strengthened board. In 2011, The Shadow Project was selected by the Harvard Business School Association of Oregon as the beneficiary of its Community Partners Program, calculating its Social Return on Investment and, based on strong results, outlining a plan to enhance and expand the program to help more children achieve.

In 2013, The Shadow Project was selected for an innovative collaborative impact program with Portland Public Schools to help improve third-grade reading scores. PPS’ selected five high-needs Portland schools for the what’s known as the Read Together initiative, contracting with The Shadow Project to implement five SuperSensory Literacy Spaces in those schools’ classrooms.

In 2014, Christy’s book The Boy Who Learned Upside Down — based on Alex’s experiences — was published by Heron Press.

Today, The Shadow Project has three full-time employees and an AmeriCorps VISTA. More than 10,000 children in Oregon have benefited from The Shadow Project’s unique goal-setting program, now available in the Portland-area and Yamhill County.

Alex is a college graduate, who is a strong advocate for children with learning challenges. He volunteers with The Shadow Project, visiting classrooms to tell kids that they, too, can achieve if they work hard.

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