Clifton Schools Celebrate Chewbacca's Birthday With Kindness, Responsibility, and Respect


All of School 9 gathered for a special lesson with Principal Rosetti...and Chewie!

Last summer the Clifton School District community was introduced to its newest, and furriest, staff member - Chewbacca. Chewie, as he’s called, is the district’s first therapy dog. He comes to work with his owner/handler Assistant Superintendent Mark Gengaro and has been very busy visiting classrooms across the large district.

Chewie has been to over 200 classrooms so far, has been part of behavior modification plans, individual and group therapy sessions, individual class incentives, attended sporting events, assemblies, trunk or treats, centennial celebrations, Back to School Nights, musical performances, Board of Education meetings, and has served as an incentive for the district’s PBSIS program.

Far more than just a sweet face, Chewie has already made his mark by helping students, and sometimes staff, move through a challenging time. One young student, who was battling school phobia, is now showing up every day thanks to working with Chewie and caring staff members. Another, a recently settled refugee, has found comfort in visits with the district therapy dog after having to leave the family pet behind.

As part of the district’s ongoing commitment to the Therapy Dog Initiative, Gengaro announced an exciting event several weeks ago: Chewie’s First Birthday Celebration Challenge. The Goldendoodle turned one year old on Sunday and Gengaro saw the perfect opportunity to turn the happy milestone into a positive behavior initiative. Two classes were to be selected to participate in special birthday celebrations - one based on student performance and the other, on a winning staff lesson. In the end, a second staff lesson was chosen for a special Chewie visit.

The voluntary staff challenge asked educators to develop and implement an “engaging, interactive lesson/activity involving Chewie himself!” The lessons could be related to therapy dogs, social/emotional learning (SEL), character education, or any other topic and the prize was a birthday celebration in their classroom with the birthday boy himself. Lessons were analyzed and judged by the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Janina Kusielewicz.

Students participated in a two-week “Expectation Ticket Blitz” for a chance to win a birthday party with Chewie for their classroom. The goal was to reinforce positive behaviors and values and students earned tickets from their teachers by promoting kindness, safety, or respect in their classrooms, hallways, during emergency drills, or anywhere on school grounds. “It’s all about the kids,” is a frequent refrain when speaking with Gengaro, whose enthusiasm for the PBSIS program and the therapy dog initiative is positively contagious.

All of the earned student tickets were placed into building collection bins, with one name drawn at the end of the two weeks. That student became the building winner and was then added to a virtual “wheel of fortune.” Superintendent Dr. Robertozzi spun the wheel to determine the Grand Prize winner, who won a party with Chewie for their class. Across the district, all eyes were trained on the reveal video at 9:30 Monday morning.

And now…the winners!

The student winner, who earned a classroom party with Chewie on Monday afternoon, was Mateo Lopez - a first grader at the School 12 Annex.

The 2nd runner-up for the staff challenge was Brittany Blanco, a Language Arts teacher at School 13.

The 1st runner-up was Principal of School 9 Joelle Rosetti, whose Rockstar lesson involved the entire school.

The Grand Prize staff winner was Sharon Schwarz, a language arts teacher at CCMS who invited her students to contribute to the lesson development.

The morning assembly at School 9 started with colorful birthday hats for all the students and huge nets, filled with balloons, strung overhead. Principal Rosetti started by reminding the gathered students that when they take advantage of the opportunities they’re given, are kind, responsible, and respectful, remain committed to what they do, and work hard to be the best they can be, they are ROCKSTARS.

Every student was given a pair of wood drumsticks and while this might sound like a recipe for disaster, they were all mindful of Rosetti’s instructions, laying the sticks on the ground when cued and tapping them in various rhythms when instructed to do so. Each rhythmic pattern was connected to a different element of teamwork: Trust, Effective communication, Active listening, and Mutual respect.

What about those balloons?

Rosetti explained that each balloon was labeled with someone’s name - a student, a staff member, and one for Chewie, who was patiently watching from the front of the room. She challenged the students to work together to get every balloon to the correct person, a task that required them to work as one very large team.

As the balloons dropped, students jumped to grab one and immediately started working on finding the balloon’s rightful owner. Younger students who cannot yet read had to ask for help from older students or staff members and together, all 300+ balloons were distributed in a little more than four minutes. It was a true testament to the power of teamwork.

As students filed quietly out of the gym to return to their classrooms, they were invited to give Chewie a gentle pat. “He’s so soft!” said one child, as she touched his curly-furred back.

Gengaro said that “demand is high, but the supply is just one Chewie,” and that he hoped that the district would be able to add more therapy dogs to the staff in the future. The biggest challenge is in securing appropriate handlers, who need to have the flexibility to go where they are most needed on any given day.

There is no doubt that Chewie’s presence is adding to a positive and supportive climate in Clifton’s public schools. Clifton is very lucky to have him!

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