The little red schoolhouse might be an image from a time gone by, but at Lawton Elementary in Oviedo, Fla., it not only exists but also inspires children to read. Lawton’s Little Red Schoolhouse, which PTA members helped construct, serves as a reading awards center for students. It’s a key aspect of a creative, volunteer-led initiative to build student enthusiasm for reading.

It began in fall 2006, when the PTA store, formerly located in the school’s tiny theater, started experiencing growing pains. PTA president

Amy Gipson and former Accelerated Reader chairwoman Amy Tobik had operated the store to reward students who passed certain milestones in the school’s Accelerated Reader program. “We were constantly concerned that someone was going to fall off the stage,” Gipson recalls, “plus we had very little room to place all the tables.”

Gipson brought her concerns and the notion of a separate store area to then-principal Terry Rabun, who approved the proposal. Soon after, Gipson convinced a local builder and future Lawton parent, Dennis Clair, to lead the project. It was Clair who thought up the building’s theme, inspired by a ceramic figurine he saw on Rabun’s desk during one of the first planning meetings.

Community members and local businesses donated the wood, roofing, flooring, and cabinetry for the build. Another Lawton family in the construction business donated a crew to help Clair build the base of the schoolhouse. An architect and an electrical engineer donated their services and ensured that the building was designed to county regulations. “Since it was built on school property, it had to adhere to all hurricane codes and be wheelchair accessible,” Gipson notes.

Construction took about three months; leaders say that donated materials alone would have cost upward of $45,000. “Lawton parents also provided a lot of sweat equity by putting up siding and painting,” Gipson says. “We would have pizza parties out on the sidewalk in front of the schoolhouse at night to feed the families and the kids.”

Now the Little Red Schoolhouse stands as a symbol of collaborative effort and dedication of Lawton parents; it’s also a tangible reminder to students about the rewards of reading. PTA leaders spend about $3,000 a year to stock the store with prizes such as Nintendo DS games and Webkinz toys.

“The program encourages families to read together at home and rewards the children for their efforts,” Tobik says. “Most importantly to the children, they earn a chance to visit the Little Red Schoolhouse!”

The Group
Lawton Elementary PTA, Oviedo, Fla.

School size: 862 students, grades K-5
Annual earnings: $46,000
Fundraisers: Basket night, school supplies, entertainment books, and merchandise personalized with students’ artwork
Mission statement: A powerful voice for all children. A relevant source for families and communities. A strong advocate for the education and well-being of every child.

The Little Red Schoolhouse
A store modeled on an old-fashioned school building to reward students who pass reading milestones

Getting with the programs: Students in 3rd through 5th grades collect points for passing computerized comprehension tests in the Accelerated Reader program. Students in the PTA’s K-2 Rocket Reader program receive a cutout of the Little Red Schoolhouse for reading four books a month. The points and cutouts can be redeemed for prizes.

A page turner for involvement: Approximately 30 parents volunteer during Accelerated Reader redemption weeks; the PTA runs three each year. Two volunteers help pass out Rocket Reader awards each month.

Painting the town read: In addition to building the Little Red Schoolhouse, PTA leaders also initiated Panther Reading Partners to develop students’ reading skills; the program matches parent volunteers and young readers for one-on-one support throughout an entire year. “Each week, volunteers ranging in age from 20s to retirees meet with their assigned child and work on fluency and comprehension,” Tobik says. “We have volunteers for any child who needs a boost, from K-5.”