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Education's Unsung Hero

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(Back Row left to right) Chris Isaly of ING, Chuck Lewandowski of ING, Jennifer Wise, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, O.V. Williams of ING, Bill Jasien of ING, and Superintendent Earl Lennard

Early in September, Jennifer Wise, program manager and teacher of Kids and Canines housed at the School District of Hillsborough County's Dorothy Thomas School, learned that she was one of 100 recipients in the nation of the 2003 Education's Unsung Hero award by the ING insurance company. The awards are given to K- 12 educators for innovative techniques in teaching children. From this group of 100, three teachers are then selected for additional grand prizes of $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000. Little did Jennifer realize that she would be selected as the national winner of the $25,000 award.

Approximately six years ago, the Department of Technical Career Education was charged with developing programs to help retrieve middle school truant students. From that charge, Kids and Canines was developed through a Department of Juvenile Justice Grant. The program began in a tiny portable on the grounds of the Dorothy Thomas Center. Soon the program began to grow and now, Kids and Canines is housed in four much larger portables and the teaching conditions have dramatically improved.

Kids and Canines serve as the students' vocational elective on the campus which now accommodates both middle and high school students. The effect that this program has on students has gained it the national recognition it deserves. Not only do students learn a marketable skill and life skills, but they have learned to give back to the community by training golden retriever pups to become assistance dogs for the physically disabled.

The program has garnered much community support which has contributed to its success. Puppy raisers are community volunteers who open their hearts and home to a golden retriever for the two-year training period and bring their dog to and from school each day — just like doggy day care. In addition, the puppy raisers contribute to the socialization of the dogs by becoming trainers — reinforcing the commands that the dogs have learned. As a bonus, the puppy raisers then can take their dogs, when properly identified, into public places, such as restaurants, the malls, and the doctors' offices.

Other volunteers that have added to the program are the veterinarians who donate the neutering and spaying of the dogs. Businesses, local restaurants and grocery stores open their doors without hesitation when the dogs and their student trainers enter for the necessary public access training. In addition, local philanthropic organizations are willing to assist the program with specific needs — such as dog crates, dog supplies — materials that are difficult for the school district to assume within its budget.

Kids and Canines has demonstrated that it is an effective program to serve students who have had unfavorable experiences with the educational system. To date, 72 students have been served by the program and 45 dogs have been trained, Annual program data supports an increase in student achievement which includes improved reading and mathematics scores. However, the greatest impact of this program has been the changes in student lives, These once "throw away" students have experienced success and have become contributing members to the community in which they live.

For more information on the Unsung Heroes program, visit www.ing.com/unsungheroes.