When a PTO matches elementary readers with NASA astronauts, literacy scores soar.

by Michelle Bates Deakin


Students at Lakewood Elementary in Tomball, Texas, traveled through the solar system during the 2008-09 school year. The more they read, the further they went, looping through the planets aboard a tiny rocket ship emblazoned with their name. When their rockets returned to earth in the spring, a real NASA astronaut celebrated with the students in this Houston suburb, where the PTO’s reading program blasted off to new heights.

The Lakewood Elementary PTO takes reading seriously. So seriously that several years ago, the parent group created a full-blown “reading program coordinator” position on the PTO board. It’s an elected position, just like the president and the treasurer. And its focus is to oversee a yearlong reading challenge that has grown in participation each year.

The program combines home learning, parent involvement, and family academic activities at school—all ingredients that education researchers applaud. “A united effort between our parents at home and our teachers and students is a wonderful thing,” says Holly Jones, principal of the K-4 school with an enrollment of 730. In addition to being the school’s principal, Jones is also a parent of a 2nd grader who had been motivated to keep reading so that she could travel through space with her classmates and collect prizes along the way.

“The program has built up our students’ stamina in reading,” Jones says. Already rated exemplary by the Texas Education Agency, the school is still seeing its reading scores climb.

“We have increased the number of students who are doing very well in reading. Incorporating home and school involvement helps build up that stamina so they can perform better.”

Achieving Liftoff

The Lakewood Elementary PTO has been running a reading program for five years. But each year, they have fine-tuned the program to inspire a greater percentage of students to participate. In 2007-08, 67 percent of students completed the entire yearlong program. For the 2008-09 school year, the reading program budget was $4,500, including prizes, T-shirts, and an end-of-the-year family celebration. “It can be as little or as expensive as a group wants,” says PTO president Laura Van Dyck, noting that the program is fully funded by the PTO, with no expense to the children who participate.

Last year’s program, “Travel Through the Solar System,” revolved around two large space murals in two hallways—one for grades K-2 and one for grades 3-4. The solar system was filled with small rocket ships, each one bearing the name of a student. The more students read, the further their rockets progressed through the solar system. The goal was to reach Pluto by the end of the year. (Even though Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, it still had a giant role in the reading challenge.)

Teachers were encouraged to participate, as well. They were represented by astronaut symbols, and their progress was tracked among the students’ rocket ships. Rockets and astronauts alike wended their way through pictures of the planets as well as solar system facts that students could peruse as they tracked their progress.

To advance through space, children needed to read a certain amount each night. The goals varied by grade level. Kindergartners and 1st graders read for 20 minutes each night with a family member; older students read for 20 minutes each night. They checked off their progress on a numbered series of reader cards. When they completed enough cards, students advanced to a new level or planet. The cards began with 10 calendar days and increased to 16 days as the program went on throughout the year. “We want to reward the early successes and make it more challenging at the end,” says PTO treasurer Susan Spore.

When children completed their reader cards, they had their parents sign the cards and they put them in a box in the library. About 12 PTO volunteers were trained to log the cards into reading program notebooks to keep track of when the children had enough minutes to reach a milestone. Each time a child completed a level by turning in enough completed reader cards, that student moved to a new planet and earned a prize. Prizes included space-theme bookmarks, tattoos, rulers, and notepads. At level 7, they received a reading program T-shirt. Students who reached level 8 could have their T-shirts signed by a NASA astronaut who visited the school during Family Reading Night in May. Level 9 students received a $5 gift card to Barnes & Noble.

“Our program is truly designed to give the students a measurable aid and reward system,” explains Van Dyck. “The prizes are small, but the kids love them.”

This was the first year Lakewood distributed Barnes & Noble cards as prizes. The bookstore donated the first $200 worth of cards, and the PTO bought the rest at cost. Children were encouraged to bring their gift cards to the bookstore on Lakewood Day. On that spring shopping day, the PTO received a percentage of sales made to Lakewood families. Then the PTO could fold that money into the next year’s reading program budget.

“This [was] the largest budget we’ve ever allotted to the program,” Van Dyck says. “We’ve spent $2,500 in years past.” T-shirts are the program’s largest expense. The shirts, with rocket ships printed on them, were made by a local vendor and cost about $4 each.

For the second year in a row, the challenge culminated with a Family Reading Night. Because of the high participation rate the year before, Lakewood held two family nights in 2008-09. About 200 students and family members attended for milk, juice, cookies, and prizes. The librarian and the principal recited stories, and each student got a medal for completing the program.

Teachers and parents have praised the PTO for the excitement and the interest in reading that the program has generated. And they plan to implement it again this year. It requires extensive preparation, which is why Lakewood made the reading program coordinator a board position three years ago.

Mairi Elliott, 2008-09 coordinator, began holding meetings during the summer to create the theme, enlist volunteers, and have the program ready to roll when school began. “It keeps the students involved all year,” Van Dyck says. “We like to encourage the habit of reading.”

Tips for Starting a Reading Challenge

Advance planning is key to getting an ambitious reading program like Lakewood Elementary’s off the ground. “It’s important to decide at the end of the school year who will be in charge of the program the following year,” says Laura Sarlin, who served as the reading program coordinator for two years. That way, the coordinator can decide on a theme over the summer and be ready to hit the ground running when school starts.

This allows time to plan the graphics for the 19-foot-by-8-foot bulletin boards, make the pieces that will track each student’s progress, and gather prizes. It also allows time to communicate with teachers, the librarian, and the principal. “You have to make sure the message of the program correlates with the message they are teaching in school,” Sarlin explains. “You have to keep the lines of communication open all year long. The reading coordinator is a kind of liaison between parents, students, and faculty.”

In some years, the PTO set goals to match up the reading challenge with the Accelerated Reader curriculum that the school has followed. That required close work with teachers and the librarian to make sure that the programs didn’t compete with each other or create extra work for the children. “You want to make sure you coordinate,” Sarlin says.

Sarlin has used a variety of themes for the reading program. The first year she was reading coordinator, she created a racetrack theme. Although the kids found it fun, she felt she lost an opportunity to make it more educational. The following year, she created the “Natural Wonders of the World” theme. It allowed her to present a lot of facts about the selected wonders on satellite photos of the earth.

“The children look at it every day, so it’s nice when we can tie in something they can learn about,” she says. “At the beginning of the year, there are no nametags on the board yet because children haven’t read enough to have submitted their first card.” During that period, children spend a lot of time looking at the facts and photos on the board. “I even saw teachers bring their classrooms out to show it to them.”

Above all, Sarlin believes it’s important to be flexible. “It can be hard to run a program of this magnitude,” she says. “You’re doing a program that could involve every child at the school. It’s a living program, so as the school year goes on you have to be open to some flexibility.”

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