ATHENS, Ala. – When students returned to iAcademy at Athens Elementary earlier this month, they were welcomed by a new member of the school's faculty. He may not be much of a talker, but he still has a way of brightening everyone's day.
His name is Eli, and he's a 2-year-old Labradoodle serving as iAcademy's new therapy dog. The good boy is hard at work, helping to ease student and faculty stress while everyone adjusts to modified school conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We love him,” said Beth Patton, acting superintendent with Athens City Schools. “The kids are crazy about him. He is very helpful during this time when stress is high.”
iAcademy Principal Amanda Tedford said getting Eli at the school has been a two-year process started by former principal Cindy Davis. She said Davis and a Title I teacher attended a workshop that included a session on therapy dogs, and they were intrigued by the idea.
Tedford said Eli was supposed to begin working at the school in March, but his first day happened to be the same day schools closed due to coronavirus.
“The mental health of our students has been a great concern of ours, especially during this pandemic,” Tedford said. “Having Eli gives students a great opportunity to have some emotional support. He is there to help. He sits with students who need some comfort or who need to see a friendly face.”
Tedford said Eli spends most of his time away from iAcademy living with teacher and handler Cindy Greenway, but the lovable pooch actually belongs to the school itself. Like Patton, Tedford said everyone at iAcademy loves Eli.
“Everyone's faces light up when they see him come into the classroom,” she said. “We spent the first couple of days letting the students meet him, and taught them how to interact with him. We taught them how to pet him the right way and to not startle him. It has been neat to see their reaction.”
Eli goes to different classrooms regularly, and Tedford said teachers can request a visit. Even remote students got a chance to meet Eli when he recently sat in on Zoom teleconferences.
Eli was trained by Service Dogs Alabama, a group that helps provide medical and psychiatric assistance dogs for those in need of them. Tedford said the therapy dog will be a member of the school for a long time.