SANDPOINT — Pepper is the most beloved staff member at Farmin Stidwell Elementary School.
Every student who passes her in the hall wants her attention: “Can I say hello to Pepper? Pepper, come here. Oh, you’re so cute, Pepper.”
Pepper’s official staff photograph sits right between principal Betsy Dalessio and associate administrator Ellen Wassif on the wall as you enter the school building.
Pepper is a kind of reading specialist. She’s both a certified therapy dog and a reading education assistant.
Throughout the year, students have opportunities to read aloud to Pepper, who is trained to lay still and look at the pages. This is particularly helpful with students struggling to read or who lack confidence.
“She encourages reading and gets them excited about it,” said Wassif, who owns Pepper.
Pepper never judges or corrects them. And cuddling is encouraged.
“I love having Pepper in schools reading with our students! Pepper creates a safe reading space for our students, allowing them to read naturally and not worry about mistakes or too many corrections. Pepper’s comforting presence allows students to become more comfortable reading aloud,” said superintendent Becky Meyer.
Pepper’s non-judgmental presence and undivided attention provide positive reinforcement that some kids need. She also joins regular classrooms, wandering among the students who are listening intently while Wassif reads a novel.
“They beg to read to her,” Wassif said.
Kootenai Elementary is now in the process of creating a similar program and has a puppy in training. No word on a name yet.