Six East Whittier City School District middle school students were recognized on Feb. 2 for successfully completing a four-week dog-training program in which the seventh- and eighth-graders learned as much about themselves as they did about training animals.
Since 2013, East Whittier has partnered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA) to bring the nonprofit’s Teaching Love & Compassion (TLC)TM program to students in the District’s Opportunity Program, a transformative intervention class that has provided support to middle school students with academic and behavioral challenges for nearly 25 years.
The East Whittier students made up spcaLA’s 100th TLC graduating class.
“I was nervous at first,” said Hillview Middle School student Xiomara Adon, who had not owned or spent much time interacting with a dog until she met Bridgette, her TLC partner. “But she was so motivated, so eager to learn that we bonded from the start. I learned a lot about helping others, and that keeps me motivated. I would volunteer to do this again.”
The District’s Opportunity Program, which is housed in a portable classroom on the East Whittier Middle School campus, serves students from the District’s three middle schools who may have issues with attendance, academic performance, or classroom behavior.
The program provides a supportive environment with instruction in grade-level core subjects, and is supplemented with small group or individual interventions to fill in gaps in language arts and math.
“The goal is to provide assistance that will help students succeed in traditional classes or enable them to return to traditional classes as soon as possible,” East Whittier Middle School teacher Jeremy Brewer said. He has led the Opportunity Program for 19 years.
Besides the core subjects, Opportunity Program has additional programs such as TLC, which is offered twice each school year. Students selected to participate spend 45 hours over four weeks attending daily instructional sessions, including an hour each day training shelter dogs, led by spcaLA staff after school. The students teach the dogs a variety of behaviors, including basic obedience, tricks and beginning agility training using various obstacles.
“The goal is to help students develop compassion, responsibility and patience,” Brewer said. “It’s a definite help for the students. It boosts their self-esteem. When they return to their class, many of their teachers notice a huge improvement in their behavior.”
During the graduation ceremony, students shared with family and staff what they learned. Each student ran their partner dog through an obstacle course, showed off tricks they taught the dogs, and gave a short presentation on what the experience meant to them. Students received certificates for completing the program.
“The District is committed to helping all of our students succeed, regardless of the barriers they may face,” East Whittier Superintendent Mary Branca said. “The Opportunity Program is an innovative tool we use to help students gain the confidence and motivation they need to achieve success. And, the TLC program reinforces important values that contribute to that.”