Principal, pets, riding off into the sunset

Published 5:46 pm Friday, January 6, 2017

NEDERLAND — All good things must come to an end.

For instance, Karen Bussell, principal of the Nederland Alternative Education School and her two therapeutic dogs, Dakota, age 11, and Dallas, age 9, are calling it a career on January 13.

Bussell has been an educator for 38 years, 25 of them with Nederland ISD. She has spent 17 years at NAES.

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“I thought I would stay another year, but I’m trading in a 3,000 square foot home and I bought a motorhome. I will travel when I retire,” she said.

“I took my first trip in November to visit my nephew who was in the state playoffs. That was when I thought it was time to go on out.”

She said she was reminded of Kenny Chesney’s song, “Don’t blink,” because her career has gone incredibly fast since she first started as a swimming coach. For years Bussell thought about retirement and now it’s suddenly here.

“I’m organized, structured, and not flexible. I will head west first to Big Bend because I’ve never been there and who knows from there? I’m committed to travel the United States for two years,” she said. “I need to lose some of the organization and structure I used all of my life and no more checklists.”

Another song that came to mind for her was “Breathe In, Breathe Out, and Move On” by Jimmy Buffett.

Bussell doesn’t know who will be the new principal at the NAES, but she believes the program has been left in a good place.

“The staff here can run the program blindfolded. My legacy will be the ease of transition,” she said. “We’re most proud of our pet therapy program.”

The program was implemented in 2006. Bussell said not many schools have this kind of program. The Airedale Terriers’ primary function is to provide emotional support and companionship.

Then NISD Superintendent Gail Krohn gathered all of the campuses principals to brainstorm doing things differently and make an impact. Krohn said the schools do the same things over and over again expecting a different result.

The principals asked their staff for their thoughts. The NAES staff came up with a pet therapy program that has been used in hospitals and nursing homes, but not much in a school setting.

The dog would have to be someone’s personal dog and be taken care of. They would also have to decide on a breed of dog. Most therapy dogs are either golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers. The NAES staff decided to follow Krohn’s advice and think outside the box.

“We wanted a dog that would more reflect the personality of our students. Like our students they’re intelligent, clownish, disobedient, stubborn and hard-headed,” Bussell said. “We Googled the Airedale Terrier and we thought they would relate more to our students. We didn’t know though if it would be a therapy dog or a companion dog.”

Bussell found out about a litter of 13 puppies in Lafayette, La. and it was “meant to be.”

When the dogs were young, it was sometimes frustrating because they knew how to do the tasks, but they didn’t do them. Bussell said the students’ teachers also share this frustration because students can do the tasks, but refuse to do so.

The staff uses music and quotes to speak for Dakota called Dakota’s Life Lessons. His last lesson will be a video on his last day centered on Tim McGraw’s “Always Stay Humble and Kind.”

Unfortunately for Dakota his retirement will be cut short. He was recently diagnosed with oral melanoma and there are no treatment options for him.

Dallas also faced a tragedy last year, as she had to have a leg amputated due to a tumor wrapped around a joint, causing her much pain.

The dogs are used throughout the district and in the community. They even have something called Dear Dakota where students can write back if they’re having trouble after they return to the main campus. The NAES counselor responds to the letters and takes care of the issues.

Bussell has attended alternative education conferences and other pet therapy programs have started because of the Nederland Alternative Education School’s program.

Dakota will visit individually with each student in the classroom and he seems to know when something is bothering a student.

Bussell said she wants to see the therapy dogs’ legacy live on. One way to do so is the establishment of the “Prince Dakota” Honorary/Mackenzie “Zie Zie” Patterson Memorial Scholarship.

Carlee Smith, a Nederland High School senior, was the first scholarship recipient in May 2016.

She wrote an essay that described one’s best friend doesn’t necessarily have to have two legs. The scholarship was for $1,000 and the scholarship honors the legacy of Dakota’s work at the school and Zie Zie’s memory who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.

The scholarship is for seniors who are either majoring in pre-vet or animal sciences. They must be eligible for admission to a university or college, have a 2.5 GPA or higher, meet the essay criteria, and complete a local scholarship application on file in the counselor’s office.

The gifts received from family and friends shall be used to establish the scholarship. The recipient of the scholarship shall be a senior from Nederland High School majoring in pre-vet or animal science.

Zie Zie was the granddaughter of Steve DeRouen who taught at NAES. She loved animals and she wanted to be a veterinarian so she could take care of Dakota and other animals.

Dakota stayed by her side while she was ill.

In June 2009, Zie Zie was soon to be a student at Langham Elementary. She was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She would die at 9 years of age on June 27, 2013.

“I believe Zie Zie is waiting for Dakota to cross that rainbow bridge to see her,” Bussell said. “It will live on with the scholarship. We did the first one in May. Our goal is to have it endowed and continue to give to a student every year from now on.”

Bussell said she is excited about this next chapter of her life.

“Nederland is a great place to work. It says a lot when you don’t move around and you stay in the same place,” she said. “I would love to see the pet therapy continue because I’ve seen the benefits of it, but it’s up to the new person.”