Despite being a Lhasa apso, Gracie could be the most popular student in Carrie Curran’s special education class at Johnson High School.
She visits Curran’s students on a weekly basis with her owner Mike McWhorter. McWhorter, a Johnson High graduate, initially had no intention of bringing Gracie into the classroom after adopting her a couple of years ago.
But he began to notice how Gracie was drawn to people with physical and learning disabilities when they would go out in public so, along with his wife, they prayed about taking her into the classroom.
McWhorter knew he wanted to give back to the high school from which he graduated, so he contacted Curran.
“From the moment we tried it out, Gracie loved the students,” McWhorter said. “And they loved her just as much.”
Gracie’s visits to the classroom generally begin with her showing off some of the tricks she’s mastered. The students take turns giving commands, then giving her treats as rewards.
“It’s a lot of fun when you do the clicker and you say ‘Come Gracie,’ and then you give her a treat,” said student Will Crain.
During her visits last year, she even entertained the students by riding around on a skateboard. McWhorter said Gracie is constantly learning new tricks.
After her performance, Gracie sits on top of a dining room table in Curran’s classroom, and the students take turns reading to her from a children’s book.
Crain said that is his favorite part of Gracie’s visits.
“Because we get a lot better at reading than we did,” he explained.
Curran said reading is generally not the favorite thing to do among her students.
“When something’s hard for you, you don’t like doing it,” she said. “But when Gracie came, it kind of took the pressure off from ‘Oh, I have to read.’”
She said her students’ reading skills improved greatly last year.
While there is that academic purpose of having Gracie visit the classroom, it is clear she shares a special bond with the students.
As they read to her, they take turns petting her as she sits calmly.
Curran said having these moments with Gracie is a huge boost of confidence for her students, who sometimes may get overlooked as they stay in their one classroom for much of the school day.
“This was something special that they got to do, that nobody else got to do,” Curran said. “My kids ... they never get to do a lot of things that everybody else gets to do. So this is something special for them. We love it.”