Spike the bulldog holds the top spot as the mascot at West Zephyrhills Elementary, but these days, a real-life chihuahua called Mini Me might be gaining ground in capturing the hearts of both faculty and students at the school.
She's definitely a star in her own right, appearing daily on the morning news show donning a graduation cap and her therapy dog sweater to promote words of wisdom along with guidance counselors Jennifer Asaro and Bridgett Crews.
Sometimes the subject is proper etiquette, bullying or what duty means when it comes to being an American citizen.
"We talk about things like standing up for what's right, being kind to others or giving as many smiles as you can because they're free," Crews said. It's a common curriculum for guidance counselors in schools everywhere, but somehow, Mini Me's quiet presence helps to get the point across or at least garner some attention.
"She's cute," said Tyler Perrault, 10, who anchors the news show along with D.J. Hilliary. "I think a lot of kids watch the news to see her but they might be listening, too, to hear the words of wisdom."
"We love her — she is the highlight of our day," said Georgia Madagan, the reading resource teacher who runs the morning news show. "She's just part of the crew."
Just shy of 4 years old, Mini Me is calm and sweet and prone to climbing into a child's lap at just the right moment, said Crews, Mini Me's owner.
"The smaller the child, the shorter the stature, the more she wants to play," she said. "And if there's a day when I have to leave her at home, she pouts."
Crews, who volunteers for the Pasco County Mounted Sheriff's Posse with her husband, Deputy Gary Crews, originally bought the dog for as a gift for his birthday. She got the idea to bring Mini Me to school after seeing the benefits of a similar program at Woodland Elementary where Crews was teaching intermediate students.
"The guidance counselor there had two golden labs that were therapy dogs," she said. "And I saw how the kids really responded."
Crews enrolled Mini Me in PAWS Therapy Dog Training Program where she earned certification. Now Mini Me is a welcome sight when it comes to sharing character traits on the morning news. She has a habit of jumping from lap to lap during classroom lessons and also provides an entrance for students seeking private counseling, some who might be reluctant to share.
"They come in to pet Mini Me," Crews said. "And pretty soon they're saying, 'Did I tell you my parents are getting a divorce?' "
"Mini Me is safe to them," Asaro said. "They know that Mini Me won't judge them. She's just so sweet."
The kids can relate to her — often better than an adult, said Crews, recalling one child who wandered into her office after the death of a grandparent. "Sometimes with chihuahuas their eyes water up for no reason, and while he was talking abut his grandmother, Mini Me's eyes were tearing up," Crews said. "He said, 'Look, Mrs. Crews, Mini Me is crying,' and I asked him how he could make Mini Me feel better."
"He hugged her and said, 'Everything is going to be all right, Mini Me. Grandma is in heaven.' "