Classroom Connection with Kids Invaluable to Scholarship Donor

by Ashley Lawrence  /   Apr 5, 2021

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Rebecca Cline, B.S. ’83 ElEd, Ed.M. ’85 ElEd, is passionate about, in no particular order: books, dogs, kids, and supporting reading and writing. She’s found a way to combine them all—by using her time and training to volunteer through SitStayRead.

Chicago-area based alumna Rebecca and her husband Rich Cline, B.S. ’83 GIES, are the duo behind the Cline Family Scholarship for College of Education undergraduate students. The Clines established the scholarship in 2014 in honor of their 53 family members, to date, who have attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Read more about the Cline family’s incredible Illinois loyalty and legacy in this story.

Retired from teaching since 2017, and an “empty nester” with all five of her children grown and living and working across the country, Rebecca knew she still wanted to do something within the education world. Her cousin’s daughter, who was then teaching in Chicago Public Schools, told Rebecca about an organization called SitStayRead.

“At that time I was considering what was next, and knew I wanted to be in schools with kids somehow,” says Rebecca. “Even though you don’t have to be a dog owner to volunteer with SitStayRead, I decided to get a dog and train him to be a certified therapy dog. Which is how Ajax became part of our family and my new co-worker,” she says.

Ajax Activates Kids’ Reading, Writing, and Creativity

“Dogs Help Kids Read” is the mantra of SitStayRead, the non-profit organization that provides programming for low-income students in kindergarten through third grades in qualifying Chicago Public Schools. Each grade’s SitStayRead curriculum is designed to support key literacy skills at that level. As a Dog Team, Rebecca and Ajax visit classrooms for an hour each week during a six- to eight-week program (Fall, Winter, and Spring).

Ajax and a SSR student read together.Ajax, a nearly five-year old English Cream Golden Retriever who is named after a mountain in Colorado, completed extensive training with Rebecca and is a Certified Reading Assistance dog. He began working in classrooms as a SitStayRead dog when just one year old—clearly, a gifted sidekick from the start. When he’s not listening to students read books and their own creative writing, Ajax spends time visiting kids at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital as a therapy dog.

In each reading session, classrooms of about 30 students are split into three smaller groups. Each group gets a Dog Team and a second adult volunteer. A SitStayRead employee starts the session by introducing the book—which is always dog-themed. Then, each small group reads the book together (choral reading, partner reading, and individual reading) and has a short discussion about it. First, second, and third graders then brainstorm writing ideas about the book and creatively write individually. If time allows, students will come back to the Dog Teams and read their creative writing aloud.

“And their stories are so cute,” says Rebecca. “They usually include the dog they were working with in their group that day, or their own dog, or their favorite Dog Team dog.”

Students also spend one-on-one reading time with Dog Teams. SitStayRead dogs, like Ajax, provide a non-judgmental sounding board for out-loud reading and help kids feel more comfortable, less stressed, and better able to focus on their work.

Making the Most of Pandemic Adjustments

After volunteering in CPS elementary schools for three to four hours weekly during each program session, Rebecca says the past year’s shift to virtual volunteering has happened successfully—albeit, making for a very different experience.

“SitStayRead totally revamped the program and created an incredible online resource, open to every CPS school—not just the schools that qualify for in-person programming. SSR did an amazing job creating an online platform for teachers to use now, and even after kids return to classrooms,” she says.

Ajax_4Still, Rebecca is hopeful she and Ajax can resume their in-person work with students this fall. Schools seeking partnership with the non-profit must meet certain criteria: the student population is at least 90% low-income, and 60% or more of third graders are reading below grade-level. These measures confirm that SitStayRead is providing critical reading and writing assistance to students most in need.

“I’m drawn to the kids who need the help most,” says Rebecca, who earned a reading specialist degree from Benedictine University following her degrees from Illinois. “Most of the schools where I volunteer, 80 to 90 percent of third graders are already failing the state reading test. With this population that is already underserved and disadvantaged, it’s going to take time and lots of effort to regroup from the added effects of this pandemic.”

Time—and vaccination vs. virus infection rates—will tell how the program will be modified this fall.

“The closer these kids can physically get to Ajax and me the better, which is a challenge with social distancing,” says Rebecca. “Will we have 30 kids in a classroom again? Are we going to wear masks while reading aloud?” she wonders.

‘I Definitely Receive More Than I Give’

This spring, Rebecca has found time to help in her daughter Maggie’s virtual classroom. Maggie, her youngest, also has a reading specialist degree and teaches first grade in Phoenix, Arizona, at the only non-Title 1 elementary school in the district. Rebecca jokes, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

“And I’m still so passionate about teaching—I wish I was still working, actually! You don’t stop caring about making a difference, even after you don’t have your own classroom.

Ajax gets a treat from a student“You do get to see some of the kids progress through the SitStayRead programming, if you’re volunteering in their particular classroom each year, so you can create a little bit of a bond,” says Rebecca. “Admittedly, as a teacher at heart I can’t help myself from sharing easy reading tips and tricks with kids while they’re reading to Ajax.

“There was this one little girl who was petrified—petrified—of dogs. She’d see me walk in the room and scurry to the other side and look like she was going to cry. She would sit 10 feet away from Ajax to read her story because she was so afraid. I’d have to constantly reassure her, ‘he’s not going to bite you!’ By the end of the program, she gave Ajax a treat and was laughing hysterically. And that’s why I go, too. It’s not all about the reading, it’s just making connections with these kids and giving them something they can feel good about. This girl made huge progress, overcoming her fear of a dog.

“Kids are kids, no matter the circumstances, and I definitely receive more than I give,” Rebecca says.

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