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Teacher Spotlight: Alliance’s Molly Carmody on how a companion dog is bringing emotional support to her students and breaking down learning barriers in her special education classroom

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 14, 2019

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Alliance Marine Innovation & Technology 6-12 Complex’s special ed teacher Molly Carmody Career and her companion dog Boomer(Photo: Molly Carmody)

This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Early in her career as a special education teacher, Molly Carmody knew her most vulnerable students needed additional support in the classroom. They needed someone capable of meeting their multiple physical and emotional needs to help them break down their learning barriers. Her solution was to get a furry and four-legged helper.

After a long process of applications, interviews and intense training to get an official certification, Carmody brought Boomer – a golden retriever companion dog – to her classroom at Alliance Milt and Debbie Valera Middle Academy. The middle school, located in Sun Valley, is part of the Alliance Marine-Innovation and Technology 6-12 Complex. Nearly 17 percent of its students require special education services. That’s 30 percent more than the 13 percent overall at L.A. Unified. The average across Alliance is 10 percent.  

“My scholars have academic and social-emotional needs that intersect in very significant ways,” Carmody says. “I decided that a dog could break down walls in ways that I couldn’t do alone, but it wasn’t until I joined Alliance that this idea became something in the realm of possibility.” 

She says having Boomer in the classroom could only be a reality when a school’s leadership fosters innovation and provides the right resources and support for teachers to find new ways of getting better results for their students. She says she found that at Valera Academy, and last school year her idea became a “huge accomplishment” as the companion dog has helped create a classroom culture that fosters students’ learning.

Carmody, 27, has been a resource specialist, teaching students with high needs, for the last two years at Valera’s College & Career Readiness Center – the first small classroom setting for intensive, individualized learning across the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools network. She says as soon as she joined Alliance, she presented the idea of having a companion dog to the principal. He welcomed the idea and almost immediately they started with the process that took about a year from when the application was submitted to when Boomer actually got into the classroom.

But the companion dog idea was born when she began teaching nearly four years ago at Gompers Middle School, a traditional district-run school in South L.A., where she was placed through Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income schools across the country.

Her students at Gompers made her seriously consider having a companion dog in the classroom. “They didn’t have a safe person to talk to and wondered what I could do about it, and something I know about dogs is they have healing power. Just having animals around you it teaches you empathy. It teaches you certain things that a teacher can’t teach,” Carmody said. 

“I started to see the need for social-emotional support and the lack of that support being given to students who are the most vulnerable in communities that are experiencing high levels of trauma.”

Carmody, who grew up attending Torrance Unified public schools in the South Bay area, where her mom was also a public school teacher, was matched with Boomer through Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit that breeds, trains and matches highly trained service dogs to people with special needs. 

An eighth grader in class with Boomer and special ed teacher Molly Carmody at Alliance Marine Innovation & Technology 6-12 Complex’s Career and College Readiness Center. (Photo: Alliance-College Ready Schools)

Boomer lays over a student’s legs when the student needs to be calmed, and he is capable of helping students turn book pages with his nose and fetches hearing aids and glasses. He can also pick up dropped items, turn lights on and off and open doors. But Carmody says that most importantly, Boomer offers emotional support to the students by simply being present in the classroom. 

“He knows when someone needs some love,” Carmody says. “At the start of each school day, he is waiting at the door to shake their hands and say good morning.” 

LA School Report asked Carmody what can be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as what keeps her motivated to teach. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you believe a companion dog was the best way to help your students?

My students at Gompers were having challenges even coming to school and functioning in an academic setting with all this emotional stuff that wasn’t worked through. I was a first-year teacher so I was still learning a lot, but something I noticed was that students were supposed to have counseling minutes and these counseling minutes weren’t met or we didn’t have a consistent person on campus, like one person throughout the year that was talking to them and meeting those minutes. It was multiple people or people were quitting and other people were coming in. I noticed there wasn’t a safe person for students to talk to, that goes back to the burnout, so that made me think what I could do about it.

What can you share about your current students? Is there any particular social issues they face?  

In terms of demographics, they’re mostly Latinx. There’s a smaller population that’s bused in from local communities, but Sun Valley, in particular, is mostly Latinx.

What I’ve experienced in our communities, students have parents who really care, who are hard workers and not necessarily educated by our standards. It’s hard for us to get the parent support that’s required these days of a college-going mindset. Because the parents want to be there and are supportive in a lot of ways, but academically it’s hard for some of the parents to support them in the ways that they need to get ahead. I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is just parents who are very hardworking, but a challenge is them being present in some cases.

What is your school doing that is innovative?

In my second year at Alliance, I started a self-contained class because most of Alliance schools don’t have self-contained classes. It’s all traditional. Everyone’s in the same class and they get pulled out for resource support. But we started it because some of our students have higher needs. We call them MVPs, most vulnerable students. Other Alliance schools have created Career and College Readiness Centers, but ours was the first one to get fully funded by LAUSD and then continued getting funded into the following year because our data looked really good. Our students made a lot of progress and so we got funded again. After my first year, we actually got funded to start it at our high school. It’s been growing and that’s been really cool to see as well.

What does a normal day look like with your students in your class?

This year was really interesting because we got two students who are on the alternative curriculum. This was what really blew me away about my school — the lengths that our principal and our administration took to make sure that these students accessed learning in an environment that wasn’t necessarily cut out for them.

We got two students who are on the old curriculum and they came in and we actually hired a nurse to meet their physical needs. A lot of schools have a hard time getting nurses on campus. You could say that obviously, the nurse supports all students, but the reason she’s there is for these students. It was really awesome that we got a nurse. Getting these two new students really forced us to reflect on how the classroom’s run and really adjust to meet their needs. But basically, for a typical student that’s in the general education population, they would be with me for English and then a class called literacy and transition where it’s some life skills sort of things and literacy. 

What could your school, LAUSD or the state do differently to better support your students to be successful?

To better support students with special needs? Well, I think all I can speak to is what I’ve seen and the drastic difference that I was talking about from the district school and the school I’m at now. The way I see it, I know there’s a lot of schools in the middle. I think I experienced maybe one of the most challenging schools in LAUSD, a lot of people would argue. And then, now I’m at one of the top-performing charter schools in my experience.

And so I think a lot of from what I’ve seen in the district, it seems as though there’s a lack of accountability on where money is allocated. I think that ends up hurting the students and the teachers. There’s a lot of burnout because of the lack of support and resources. I think teachers come in and want to give their all and really do put a lot of money, time and invest a lot of themselves into this profession. They see how quickly how challenging that is to continue without adequate support and get burned out. I think within special education especially, it’s hard for teachers to get good at their jobs long enough.

Because people say it takes five years to become a good teacher or to become a teacher that knows what they’re doing. In special education, teachers are leaving way before that by year two or three, because it’s so much to handle. I think that there are so many different things that play into that. There’s racial stuff, implications of students going into special education because of their behavior versus their actual need for special education services. I think that’s a huge thing that’s a disservice to our students, especially our black and brown students.

I think there’s a lot of schools that are in the middle that have great things going for them, but also challenges. But I think I saw some of the biggest challenges within the district and then some of the most amazing things.

What is most misunderstood about your job? What’s the biggest difference between people’s perception or what you have heard from people about the teaching profession? 

People think a special education class looks a certain way, when in reality if you talk to five or 10 different special ed educators, you’re going to have completely different experiences, completely different student groups and completely different needs. Same with a general education teacher. You talk to general education teachers from five different places and even if they teach the same subject, same grade, five completely different people groups even within LA. Because we’re so diverse, completely different needs and completely different ways of doing things that they’ve figured works for them or is working in the short term. I guess there’s a misconception of what educators do.

What’s your best day or your proudest accomplishment as a teacher? 

Definitely this year. I felt very accomplished after successfully having our program re-funded for a second year. But I think I felt the most accomplished by getting the service dog for my classroom and seeing my students at graduation. I went to a two-week professional development to learn how to handle the dog and get connected with the dog. And the students came after those two weeks to a little ceremony and I felt really proud. I was really excited to see them there and to celebrate that milestone for us of getting this dog. 

And also in the last five months of having him just seeing the breakthrough from our students and seeing what a good choice it was. Because I think in a lot of ways I had to sacrifice a lot in having a dog. It’s a very different lifestyle. But seeing how it’s really developed our classroom culture and our school in a lot of ways, I think has been a huge accomplishment.

The students really like walking him around our school. They take pride in him. The whole school loves him. He was showcased in our yearbook, and he’s just been such a blessing to our school. I think I’m still learning how to incorporate him in other ways, but I’m happy so far with how things are going.

What would you like the public to know about charter schools in general or particularly about your school?

I can only speak to my school and I think there are a lot of valid concerns around charters. I think a general misconception is that charter schools are stealing students from the district. When I think from a parent’s perspective, a parent is going to put their child where they feel their child is going to be taken care of the best and the safest. I think there are amazing teachers in the district that are really trying to push forward and fight and make and create change. A lot of times, the charters are getting funding that the district schools aren’t seeing. I think what’s challenging about that is even when there is more funding, because there can always be more money, especially within LAUSD, somehow it doesn’t get to the students and the teachers. I don’t think more money is the issue. 

Personally, I just think there’s a miscommunication. There are valid concerns about finances within the charter and how charters are funded. But something I can’t say about the district that I can about the charter is that I’ve never needed a piece of paper at the school I’m at. I’ve never needed to buy my own pencils for students.

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher, and how easy or difficult was it to actually enter the profession? 

I knew I wanted to be a teacher probably when I transferred from the junior college I was at. I think in California we have the highest standards for teachers to become teachers with all the tests you have to take and all the hoops we have to jump through. I have my masters and I’m still not fully credentialed. I have my credential, but I’m clearing it at the moment. I think there’s so many hoops to jump through and things you have to do to become a fully credentialed teacher. I think that it’s good in some ways, but it’s also really repetitive in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of tests and some people aren’t great at taking tests that would make amazing teachers. I know people who had the desire to be a teacher and couldn’t pass some of the tests that are required. They tried multiple times and couldn’t do it. So now they’re pursuing different things. I think it’s challenging to become a teacher. The route I took was different with Teach for America. 

What’s your main goal for the next school year?

I’m transitioning from being just a middle school teacher to teaching both middle school and high school. Instead of me doing all English and literacy and transition for just middle school and my colleague doing the same thing for high school, we’re splitting it down the middle. She’s going to do all English and I’m going to do all literacy and transition for middle school and high school.

I think the idea behind that is becoming really, really good at instructing one thing or two things versus teaching multiple subjects and kind of being OK at them. I think it gives us a chance as educators to focus and hone in on our skills, like our lesson planning and actually doing the lessons well and focusing on student growth and student outcomes in one area versus having to juggle a lot of different multiple roles. Our school is really trying to take the load off and in different ways and the resources we do have so that we can get really good at the things we are doing. 

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