MIDDLEBURG – As you drive through the streets and gravel roads surrounding Middleburg you might notice a handful of signs dotting the homes of the town’s top young scholars.
When the Clay County School District embarked on the new reading initiative Achieve 3000, Wilkinson Elementary School administrators wanted to take the program a step further for its top performing readers.
The program, originating with Superintendent Addison Davis, aims to get kids interested in reading, but with a challenging twist. The school district requires students to read nonfiction articles instead of the normal fare checked out from school libraries. The benefits of this are numerous, but the primary focus is introducing young readers to scientific research papers and carefully cited articles, similar to what they might have to use for research in college.
“Through reading these articles, a lot of these kids discover interests they didn’t know they had,” said Heather Teto, principal. “The more you read, the smarter you get.”
Teto and the school’s Assistant Principal Carolyn Hayward wanted to ensure the program was a success at their school, and provided incentives throughout the year to keep kids on track. Achieve 3000 has studnets reading 40 articles throughout the year, about one per week, but some students at Wilkinson doubled that number, something the two admins did not expect.
“Most of our students are exceeding the requirements,” Teto said. “We’ve had a lot of success with this program. We live in a really challenging community but we have some beautiful children who are the most beautiful scholars.”
In an attempt to meet the effort put forth by some of their highest achievers, Teto and Hayward looked to a school district in Georgia where they had been following a program similar to Achieve 3000 for a while and paid close attention to their incentives program. Through this research, the two came up with an idea to surprise the top two performers in each grade level from fourth through sixth and surprise them during summer break with a yard sign that lets passersby know that “A WES Extraordinary Reader Lives Here.”
The kids have no idea they are top performers, and because of the close-knit community at Wilkinson they are all happy to see their principal and assistant principal even though they’re on break.
“This is the best school,” said Jessie Kelley Jr., 10, after receiving his yard sign. “You guys are always doing something to keep learning fun!”
Kelley was one of the top readers from the outgoing fourth grade class, and said he was taking a break from reading after reading more than double the 40 articles required by the district. The break, however, is only a break from nonfiction as Kelley has already embarked on a several-hundred-page fantasy novel in the week since school let out.
“I’m about 100 pages in,” Kelley said while listing all the books he hopes to read this summer. “I really like science fiction because it’s something that you can relate to the future. Reading is like a getaway for me, something to relax to.”
Sarah Rosier, Kelley’s mother, said she can’t believe how her son has taken to reading.
“If I don’t let him play Xbox or watch TV, the first thing he does is reach for a book,” she said. “Sometimes late at night I go to his room because he’s still up and I expect him to be watching TV or YouTube, instead he’s usually just reading in bed with a flashlight.”
Kelley’s compatriot Jackson Ingram makes up the other half of the fourth grade class’ top two readers. After beginning Achieve 3000, Ingram has answered some of the difficult questions he had always had such as, “How do tornadoes form?” or “Where does rain come from?”
“One day, when I was a child, I looked outside and it was raining. I thought to myself, ‘Why does it rain like that? How does water fall from the sky?’” Ingram said. “I had lots of questions and those led to lots of answers.”
Ingram said he hopes to one day become a climatologist, and even though some of the articles he read explored other sciences such as biology and chemistry, weather is where his interests lie. Since school let out for summer you’d think he would’ve slowed down, but if anything, the break has only provided him with more time for reading.
“I’ve been reading a lot more about weather,” Ingram said of his time off so far.
Teto and Hayward look forward to continuing the program into its second year and look to incentivize students again with raffle items and rewards like pizza and ice cream parties every few months throughout the school year to keep kids’ noses in research articles.
“It was such a new program this year that we were trying to get everyone to buy in on it, but when you look at the district as a whole our school saw the greatest participation across the district,” Teto said. “It shows how important [Achieve 3000] was for us. We’re focusing on student literacy, but it’s also been a great way to connect with our kids.”