HIGHLIGHTING HAPPINESS: One great school, one lovable therapy dog, and endless happiness

By: Andrew Campanella

Last Upated: April 15, 2021

At the North Florida School of Special Education, happy students, dedicated teachers and staff, and one beloved therapy dog are making the world a brighter and happier place.


Sallie Hazelip describes the North Florida School of Special Education as “the happiest place on earth.”I think she’s right.

Located in Jacksonville, Florida, the North Florida School recently made news for welcoming a therapy dog to campus, every day, to provide care and support to students with intellectual differences.

The dog, named Zenbowie, “gives students a sense of calm when they are having a tough day,” even helping students gain the confidence to overcome fears such as
entering crowded and loud rooms.

According to Ms. Hazelip, who is the head of school, staff and volunteers at the North Florida School are always looking for new ways to provide opportunities for students to succeed.

That’s why, in addition to bringing Zenbowie on board, the school owns and manages Berry Good Farms, a teaching farm for students complete with hydroponics, aquaponics, and an air-conditioned growing shed. They also run Barkin’ Biscuits, a vocational training program where students learn how to cook and also make dog treats. They have a robust music program run by teacher Ciaran Sontag. And they offer a community outreach effort that attracts 50 local volunteers – from business leaders to local college students – to the school each week.

Students at the school describe Zenbowie, and the school’s programs, as bringing happiness to their lives. But if you listen to Ms. Hazelip and Mr. Sontag, the students are the ones bringing happiness, joy, and learning to the broader Jacksonville community.

“Academics are incredibly important to us but equally important to us…is bringing people from the community into the school,” Hazelip said. “We believe that bringing people into the community, or bringing people from the community into the school, makes people realize that we are more alike than different, and hopefully they can go back out and talk about the experience they’ve had with students.”

“Looking at this community and seeing how profoundly our students impact the people in the community…sometimes it seems like they’re blindsided with how happy and how positive it is around campus,” Sontag said. “I think that people have a certain expectation that since society tells us how to treat people with disabilities, they aren’t realizing how much that those people actually have to offer them and how they can transform their outlook.”

Zenbowie and students at North Florida School of Special Education

It is that sense of transformation and positive energy that motivates the North Florida School to participate in National School Choice Week. The school has celebrated NSCW since 2013, and is already signed up to participate once again in 2019. Their favorite NSCW activity: learning and performing the annual National School Choice Week dance.

“I look forward to it each year,” Sontag said. “I work it into my lesson plans and last year we even featured it in our annual talent show. Our middle schoolers performed the dance with the yellow scarves. It was such a big hit we that we even brought back all of the performers, all of about seventy students, all back to the stage for an encore to do that.”

After talking with Ms. Hazelip and Mr. Sontag, my optimism for the future has been renewed. Happiness matters. It helps students learn and achieve their dreams.

And in a world where negativity and pessimism too often displaces positivity and optimism, the teachers and school leaders at the North Florida School of Special Education remind us to seek and find local heroes. They are all around us.

Read more: Five Questions for Sally Hazelip, head of school, and Ciaran Sontag, music teacher, at North Florida School of Special Education

Sign-Up for Updates