School with 91% Students Receiving Free or Reduced Lunches Places 6th in Summer Reading Challenge

By Diane Mahar, Principal, Belvedere Elementary School 

Belvedere Elementary School students break record!Through sheer determination, ingenuity and imaginative fundraising, Principal Diane Mahar of Belvedere Elementary School in West Palm Beach managed to keep her kids reading and her library open last summer, helping her 550 K-5 students place 6th worldwide in Scholastic's Summer Challenge, a global campaign to encourage kids to read more books during the break.

It was a heck of an achievement for a Title 1 school where 91 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches and 85 percent speak another language besides English.

Mahar started the pages turning by applying for a "Partners in Print" grant from the Pew Foundation. When a much-needed check for $9,000 arrived last spring, Mahar used part of the funds to keep the campus library open for the summer, giving kids access to books during a period when reading typically declines. She was able to stretch her funds even more by inviting AARP summer volunteers to staff the campus library two days per week.

Next Mahar, along with Belvedere Media Specialist and uber-Book Fair Chairperson, Jennifer Hayes, and other school staff formed a "Literacy Leadership Team" to brainstorm strategies for enticing kids to read over the summer. Out of those strategy sessions, they created a Classroom Reading Plan that would give students a role in deciding what they would read and how much they would read.

Then, to sweeten the incentive, Mahar reminded students that Sunset Palms, an elementary school in nearby Boynton Beach , had read the most minutes in Scholastic's Read for the World Record competition the previous summer. It was one of those "if they can do it, we can do it" challenges that created even more enthusiasm and buy-in for the summer reading program.

"Traditionally the summer slide has been a big problem for us. So our goal was to create a culture where students absolutely love to read and can't wait to have a book in their hands," Mahar said. "We received amazing support from the parents, who took ownership and became involved once we put the summer reading program into play."

Mahar decided to give four books each to students during the summer break, and then urged them to read for 10 minutes per day. If they met their goal, she promised to rent bounce houses for each class as a reward when they returned in the fall.

That must have struck a nerve. "The kids began holding booktalks and sharing stories about the various books that might be fun to read over the summer. And, of course, they talked about the Bounce Party the whole last month of school," Mahar said.

When school let out for the summer, the kids kept track of their reading minutes from day to day, with about 10 percent logging their time at the school library or on their home computer and the rest tracking their minutes manually and entering their time upon their return to school.

The results were terrific. FCAT diagnostic tests showed absolutely no drop-off in reading scores between spring and fall of 2010. Belvedere's book-happy students managed to overcome the all-too-typical "summer slide" by devoting a few minutes each day to reading – an achievement many better-funded schools would have loved to duplicate.

And when all the summer reading was done and the students had returned to campus, the whole school "bounced" in bounce houses. It was truly an "uplifting" day for the 550 students at Belvedere Elementary School .

And guess what? Mahar and her students are already looking forward to participating in this year's Summer Read for the World Challenge. She plans to send each of the kids home with 10 "just right" books when school lets out in May. Ten seems to be the magic number. Citing research by University of Florida educator Dr. Richard Allington, Mahar says that when kids are given at least 10 books to read during the summer break, as many as 50 percent not only maintain their skills, but actually make reading gains.
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