Friday, May 19, 2006

Reading challenge may leave principal marooned on island

Those put in control of motivating young people are faced with finding ways to encourage the learning process. School faculty and staff must create ways to entice students, whether it be with incentives or repercussions.

But what if, when students were challenged to read a certain amount of books, they did?

For the past three years, Stella May Swartz Elementary School students have been given a lofty reading goal that they have accomplished, forcing the principal to sleep on the roof of the school, spend the night in jail, and this year, become marooned on "Principal's Island."

"I wanted to do something that would last all year and not just something with a week- or a month-long focus," said Scott Jackson, Stella May Swartz principal. "I am trying to get kids to develop reading as a habit. To become a really good reader, you have to practice."

Jackson, who has been the principal at Stella May Swartz in Oakbrook Terrace for the past four years, decided in his second year that he wanted to do something to encourage students to read.

Each year, Jackson challenges students to read a certain number of books. During the first year, it was 10,000. The second year, he challenged them to read 12,000 books and for the third year, it was 13,000 books.

The students are then given cards that have 10 little books on them. As they finish a book, an adult (parent, teacher, grandparent, etc.) initials one of the books on the card. When they read 10 books and fill the card, the students bring it to the office and get a book charm to collect. They get a new card to fill up so they will keep reading.

According to Jackson, if the students meet the challenge, as they have again this year, he promises to do something in return.

"I have to keep up my end of the deal," said Jackson. "This year I said I would spend the night marooned on 'Principal's Island.'"

In designing "Principal's Island," Stella May Swartz had a boat dealer bring a 26-foot boat on which Jackson will spend the night.

He will have to stay on it all night on May 18 until the students arrive back at school in the morning.

During the evening, families are invited back for a cook-out, book fair, ice cream social and dance, and the children all get a chance to read Jackson their favorite bedtime stories.

"The students have a great time reading, learn a lot, become much better readers and most of them gain a love for reading," said Jackson. "Most of all, they really enjoy seeing me spend the night outside."

Last year, Jackson spent the night in a jail facility that staff and students built in front of the school.

"It was cold, windy and wet," added Jackson. "It was a very long night, but fun."

When it comes to reading, Jackson believes it is important to motivate the students to do something like this because reading is an important skill that they will use their entire lifetime.

The reading challenge also gives staff an opportunity to see students who are excited to read and work hard at it for an entire year.

According to Jackson, not only are the students learning to enjoy reading, but the school has also seen positive results during the challenge's three-year existence.

"There is nothing they can't learn about or do by reading," said Jackson. "As a building, we have seen a steady increase in our reading test scores during the three years we have been doing this challenge."

In making the decision on how many books Jackson challenges his students to read, he says that setting the bar high is very important to motivate the students to do something more.

Having only 163 students in second, third and fourth grade, which is 20 students less than last year, Jackson believes that 13,000 is a pretty high goal.

During the challenge, said Jackson, he looks forward to seeing students who are better readers with a lifelong love for reading.

"It's interesting to watch the students come into the office for a variety of things," added Jackson. "If they need to wait, the first thing they do is pick up a book and read from our basket."

Jackson also stated that faculty and staff have recorded a CD for each event thanks to one of the school's parents who owns a recording studio; this year's song is entitled "Principal's Island."

Through the reading challenge, Jackson stated that it has been a total team effort.

Jackson believes that without the help and the drive of faculty and staff at Stella May Swartz, there is no way the challenge could have happened.

According to Jackson, the annual challenge has become a staple in the school's drive for excellence and has turned out to be a win-win situation for all who are involved or participate.

"It's a good feeling when even the parents come up to me in the beginning of the school year and ask what we have up our sleeve for this year's challenge," added Jackson. "I enjoy watching the kids come to the office to hand in their reading cards and ask, 'Did we make it yet?'"


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