PTA President Sheila McDougall shakes her head when she thinks about Birch Primary School's reading scores. State test results released in April 2003 showed that nearly a quarter of second-graders at the North Olmsted, Ohio, school read below the state average. Worse, 35 percent of third-graders scored below the average. Compounding the problem, a recent school realignment left Birch with limited library resources.
"North Olmsted was not very high on Ohio's list of students who passed....We've never been," McDougall says. But she did more than shake her head when those results came out. She gathered parent leaders for a brainstorming session. What could they do to boost reading scores? "We as a PTA thought if children could read, the possibilities would be endless," she says. "Our dream was about literacy for all children."
That April morning, around McDougall's kitchen table, five parent group members concocted a recipe for a unique, exciting, and fun-filled reading challenge for all of Birch's students. It was an inspired and ambitious plan, one that they would spend the entire next school year executing: to get the student body to read for a total of 1 million minutes in just seven months. They called it the Million Minute Reading Challenge.
The Excitement Begins
That fall, in the days leading up to the announcement of the reading challenge, McDougall and her leaders wanted to create excitement and pique curiosity among students and staff. They created a 6-foot-high, bright-orange contraption labeled the "Million Minute Mystery Surprise Box" and placed it in the school's lobby. The box sat there throughout the course of the challenge, to be opened after the millionth minute of reading had been accomplished.
"It was stressful," says third-grader Alex Kiss about having to wait so long to find out what was inside. For teacher Sandie Taricska, who served on the organizing committee, the real challenge during those weeks was having to stay mum when students like Alex begged them to tell what they knew about the box. "They were always disappointed when I wouldn't tell them," Taricska says. "But they would ask again after a few days passed."
On Oct. 1, the PTA set the challenge into motion with a fired-up kickoff rally and the release of more than 300 helium-filled balloons. Parent leaders organized skits featuring teachers dressed as characters like the Cat in the Hat, Harry Potter, and Clifford, and they tossed out T-shirts with the message "I Am Taking the Million Minute Challenge." PTA leaders also sent home letters to parents detailing the challenge and explaining how to log reading minutes. Students went home with buttons that read "Ask me about the Million Minute Reading Challenge." The challenge was in full swing.
To keep Birch's bookworms munching through a million minutes, the PTA organized spirited rallies and went all out on incentives. Committee member Traci Lynes offered up her graphic design skills and created an eagle mascot that would be used for window clings, bookmarks, and T-shirts throughout the seven months of the challenge.
McDougall used the monthly PTA newsletter to encourage parents to read with their children and pitched the challenge as a way for students to limit TV time and fighting with siblings. Parent leaders created a schedule for students in grades 1-3 to share their reading recommendations over the PA during morning announcements. PTA volunteers logged weekly reading hours onto a computer spreadsheet and notified teachers of any students who were falling short each month.
The PTA also enlisted the community's help in acquiring reading materials. Some businesses donated magazine subscriptions to the school; others made cash donations to the PTA. As classrooms met their monthly goals, the PTA rewarded them with books, bookmarks, and other reading materials. At a family movie and reading night in December, the PTA highlighted the book Freaky Friday and gave out handmade ornaments to go along with the theme.
Third-grader Seth Voelker really liked when January rolled around. "My favorite part of the Million Minute Challenge was the big pep rally with Slider, the Cleveland Indians' mascot, and the Energizer Bunny," he says. Birch's parent leaders organized the visit and had the characters present T-shirts to students who remained on target with their monthly reading. Seeing students at school wearing the prize was a big motivator for some of their peers, too. "One of the girls came running up to me because she was so excited that she finally earned her T-shirt," Taricska says.
The excitement at Birch continued through the winter months, as did the PTA's ingenuity. Parent leaders organized a winter reading luau where students donned flip-flops, sunglasses, and brightly colored shirts. Teachers wore grass skirts and leis and read to the children in a relaxed setting. The PTA also organized Birch Book Buddy Day, which paired kindergartners and first-graders with second- and third-graders. Pairs read together for 30 minutes.
An Extra Push
One of the biggest surprises of the challenge, though, came in February. It was a letter from the White House signed by first lady Laura Bush. The letter wished them all a great year in school and encouraged them to read many interesting books. Mrs. Bush, a former librarian, also sent pictures and information about the White House as well as her own recommended reading list of books the children could read with their families or independently.
When it looked like the challenge was becoming, well, a challenge, McDougall's PTA got creative again. The group called on parents and even the principal to read with students who looked like they might be falling short of May's million-minute mark. "The students who were not supported at home benefited from the attention of volunteers who read with them at school," says Principal Jim Schilling.
Teachers like Ramona Tomko and Denise Ressler, who were also challenge committee members, were happy to make up lost minutes with their students by offering reading time in lieu of play time in their classrooms. "There were children I never thought would give up their recess to read, but they did without my persuasion," Tomko says. Second-grade teacher Ressler says that at first it was a chore to get students to sit down and read silently for 10 or 15 minutes, but halfway through the challenge, they began voluntarily picking up books and logging minutes at their desks. "Struggling readers actually enjoying reading...if that's not academic progress, I don't know what is," she says.
In April, the school and the PTA hosted a family "read-in" night for which, Schilling notes, "teachers gave up a Friday night with their own families to help students log reading minutes." Birch student Olivia Merdita especially loved the event. "We got to wear our pajamas, and we had pillows and some blankets," she says. "It was a lot of fun reading." Students did crafts, ate hot dogs, and read for an hour. During the night, the PTA invited students to design a quilt patch based on their favorite book. "We will display this for many years to come," McDougall says.
The PTA arranged for college students in the area to write letters of encouragement to students. The group also invited special guest readers to Birch, including Hope Taft, wife of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. Students loved every minute of the attention, as well as of the books being read to them. "I really enjoyed when all the special visitors who came to Birch, especially first lady Hope Taft," says Grace McDougall, another third-grade bookworm. Grace and the other 318 students at Birch were anxiously counting down the last days and minutes of the challenge.
Minutes Earned, Mystery Solved
The big day finally arrived. On May 1, day 212 of the Million Minute Reading Challenge, students, parents, and teachers were invited to an assembly at Birch. The tallies were in. McDougall made it official. Their total: an amazing 1,043,284 minutes. Each student had read for an average of 3,280 minutes from October through May. And just like the ending in a good suspense novel, the mystery of what was in the box was finally revealed to Birch's eager readers. As Alex Kiss, Ty Froelich, and the other Birch students sat with mouths agape, the door to the Million Minute Mystery Surprise Box flew open. "The atmosphere in the assembly was electric," Taricska says.
Ty couldn't believe the challenge was over, but he was pretty happy with what was revealed. "Inside the box," he says, "was a book from our teachers, a certificate to go swimming or ice skating at the recreation center, and a tote bag with a chocolate bar inside."
Later that week, the PTA treated Birch's millionaires and their families to a picnic and parade, then to a party at a community recreation center. "The picnic and parade both got rained on and it was a cool day, but students were marching along like it was a beautiful, sunny day," Taricska recalls.
"The whole school walked down the street and back," says student Taylor Phillips. "The teachers were dressed up as characters from books." The PTA also invited incoming kindergarten students and their families to share in the celebration, giving them an opportunity to get excited about the school and Birch PTA. The families spent the rest of the day swimming and skating at the recreation center.
The Last Chapter Ends
Even now, months after the challenge was completed, the excitement of it still lives on at Birch. "The T-shirts, ornaments, bookmarks, and decorated tote bags for trips to the library have now become reminders of a goal achieved and a job well done," says Traci Lynes, the parent who helped design the graphics. Students like Brandon Barda are still talking about the host of characters that came to their school to help make them better readers. And Alex Kiss and all of Birch's other students are sleeping a little more peacefully at night since they found out what was in that mystery box.
The challenge has given Schilling and his teachers much to smile about, too; their school received a rating of "excellent" in the last reading proficiency test. But that's only part of the picture. "It helped encourage students and families to consider reading as a recreational activity," Schilling says of the challenge. "It also taught students valuable lessons about teamwork, commitment, meeting challenges, and being a part of community's effort to accomplish something big."
For teacher Denise Ressler, the success of the challenge was truly in the connection it built between parents and teachers. "We met not only our objective of having the students acquire a love for reading, but we surpassed that by becoming unified as a Birch family that had one common goal," she says. "In today's world, that is a wonderful achievement."
The results are tangible to parent Patty Fatsie. Her son, third-grader Brandon Fatsie, has developed a passion for books. "Before, I would have to force him to read. Reading was not something he enjoyed to do until the whole school started participating in this reading challenge," she says.
"Parent involvement was the key to the success of the Million Minute Challenge," Schilling says. "What started out as a simple idea became a school year that children will not soon forget. The Million Minute Challenge was a great example of how a parent group, like our PTA, can really support teachers and students in the teaching and learning process."
Still, McDougall is modest about her group's endeavor and wants no credit for the students' phenomenal accomplishment. She feels that the dream of reading was there all along in students like Brandon Fatsie, Alex Kiss, and everyone else at Birch. "The kids wanted this challenge to happen....They loved to read and loved to prove to us that the challenge would succeed, " she says. "We are so very proud of them."