‘Reading Is Non-Negotiable’ at College-Themed Texas School

Principal Lariza Liner
Schulze Elementary School
Irving, Texas

The sign in front of Lariza Liner’s school clearly expresses her attitude toward reading: “Read 20 minutes every single day. No excuses.” The term “no excuses” is even the school motto.

“Reading is non-negotiable at our campus,” Lariza says, and one look will tell you it’s more than tough talk.

Schulze Elementary is, in fact, a member of the No Excuses University Network, an elite nationwide group of elementary, middle, and junior high schools with a rigorous approach to college readiness.

“It was important for us to show our students that elementary school is where the path to college begins,” says Lariza, whose Title 1 school of 780 students has a 40 percent mobility transient rate in her district. “These students will be the first generation in their families to go to college.”

The school’s reading program is linked to the Texas Bluebonnet Award program, which encourages reading for pleasure among students in grades 3 to 6. Once students read a minimum of five books from the 20 that are selected for the program each year, they can vote for their favorite title that January. Students in kindergarten through second grade read additional books from the Texas Library Association’s Texas 2 x 2 Reading List.

At Schulze, every student is required to take home two to three books every day to read and are required to read at least 40 books throughout the school year. The school’s college theme carries into reading: Once a student completes five books, that student is awarded an “associate degree.” Subsequent degrees are achieved with every additional five books read. Lariza and her staff work with the students, who set their own reading and math goals during the first six weeks of school.

When a student graduates with a doctorate, he gets a free book, a college shirt that has been donated from either a staff member or a college with whom the school has a relationship, and a certificate. “It’s a huge deal when they get their certificates,” Lariza says.

Determined to “set the culture of reading,” Lariza encourages her faculty to share their reading experiences. “At every faculty meeting, we start off with a booktalk. We also do booktalks every week on the announcements. As you enter our library, you will see pictures of teachers with their favorite books,” she shares.

Not to be left out, students have a place where they can share their own top titles each month. They even have a reading graffiti wall where they write down their favorite quotes. Student book clubs and a teacher book club are also part of Schulze’s reading culture.

“I explain to my teachers that sometimes we get so caught up in teaching that we forget the most important part, which is independent reading time,” she observes. “We want kids to learn and grow and find that sense of enjoyment in reading.”

However, Lariza recognizes the limitations of educators. “We only have eight hours of the day, so we need to work with parents to make sure reading is happening at home as well. If we want to promote independent reading, we have to put books in the students’ hands,” she says.

Last year Schulze held a Read and Rise family engagement event co-sponsored by the Dallas Cowboys. More than 600 parents attended the event, where they learned “easy, practical ideas they can do at home to promote literacy,” says Lariza, who plans to repeat the event this year for incoming kindergartners and new students. “That was the start of building home libraries. A lot of our students don’t have books at home,” she adds.

Parents of kindergartners and first-graders also attend parent education classes each month where the concepts of building a reading culture at home are further enforced. “A lot of our parents struggle academically, so we encourage them and show them how they can support what we’re doing at school,” Lariza shares.

A year into her reading initiatives, Lariza already sees a change in her school culture as she observes student behavior. “They sit down and open up their backpacks and take out books whenever they have downtime throughout the day,” she says. She also sees more parental involvement and an understanding that “school isn’t really a scary place to be.”

But this is only the beginning for the tough-talking principal. “This generation will face a lot of trials and tribulations in achieving goals,” she predicts, “and I’m not going to give up.”
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