Boundless creativity and highest expectations: how a Nebraska district inspires reading-driven achievement

Not everyone would see the educational potential in a few rolls of duct tape, marked-down boxes of marshmallow chicks, handmade traps for leprechauns, and boisterous rock concerts. Nor does every school district expect to achieve a 100 percent college acceptance rate. But the talented educators at the South Central Unified School District in rural Clay County and Nuckolls County, Nebraska, ply equal parts creativity and high expectations to inspire exceptional reading-driven achievement. The district indeed boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, with an impressive enrollment rate of 87 percent.

District Superintendent Dr. Randall Gilson explains that South Central Unified teachers collaborate to meet educational goals through the use of technology, interdisciplinary learning, and innovative teaching techniques. Sharon Radabaugh, a paraprofessional at South Central Unified, administers the district’s Renaissance Star Reading® and Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360® solutions that serve as enabling technology. “Renaissance solutions help us hold students accountable, while generating an enthusiasm for reading that improves achievement across all content areas. Using Accelerated Reader 360 as the basis for our incentive structure, we’re inspired to develop creative, engaging, and fun new means to help students to learn and grow.”

Dr. Randall Gilson
Dr. Randall Gilson

The challenge: improve reading to boost scores and support career- and college-readiness program

Radabaugh, on staff since 1998 and also a graduate of one of two South Central Unified schools, says that the district has been using Renaissance solutions for some 20 years. But the arrival of Gilson as superintendent, the implementation of 1:1 computing across K–12, and a new professional studies high school program led to an expanded application of Accelerated Reader 360. She relates that Gilson, a 15-year veteran of successful Renaissance-based reading programs, helped drive new incentive/reward concepts and ever-higher expectations for achievement: “Our district goals for the expanded Accelerated Reader 360 program were to improve scores on state testing. We also hoped to engage and advance more students across the learning spectrum and to introduce hands-on and interdisciplinary learning activities that would better prepare K–8 students for career-readiness programs at the high school level.”

The results: higher achievement, expanded experience, and learning synergies

Two schools—Sandy Creek Public Schools and Lawrence-Nelson Public Schools—comprise the South Central Unified School District that serves seven Nebraska communities. Radabaugh administers the Renaissance solutions districtwide for pre-K–8, manages goal-setting and incentive/reward programs for pre-K–5, and employs Accelerated Reader 360 in her work with high-ability learners.

South Central Unified educators use Star Reading and other class data to set quarterly individual and classroom reading goals. Students earn Accelerated Reader 360 points by achieving 85 percent or higher proficiency on practice quizzes, as well as in related reading activities. “Over the last five years, we’ve seen continual improvement in reading scores,” notes Radabaugh. “Scores on the Nebraska State Accountability (NeSA) standardized tests, for example, have improved by 15 to 25 percent across the board. Most recently, we closed out two semesters in a row with 100 percent of pre-K–8 Sandy Creek and Lawrence-Nelson students achieving 100 percent of their Accelerated Reader 360 goals.”

“Scores on the Nebraska State Accountability (NeSA) standardized tests, for example, have improved by 15 to 25 percent across the board. Most recently, we closed out two semesters in a row with 100 percent of pre-K–8 Sandy Creek and Lawrence-Nelson students achieving 100 percent of their Accelerated Reader 360 goals."

Sharon Radabaugh
Paraprofessional – South Central Unified School District

Radabaugh says that Accelerated Reader 360 helps students at every level. “We’ve seen particular success for our struggling learners, with a number of them improving by one to as many as four grade levels in a single year. The solution’s leveled books likewise help keep high-ability learners motivated and interested. One of my fourth graders earned 1,000 Accelerated Reader 360 points last year, and a year-end Star Reading assessment indicated he was reading at an end-of-grade-12 level. Several other students assessed at a 12.0 grade equivalency or higher.”

The best day ever!

At the end of each quarter, schools celebrate student reading successes with rewards as humble as cookies and as grand as bus trips to a nearby ice skating arena or bowling alley. Students have used their Accelerated Reader 360 points to earn strips of duct tape to attach their favorite educators to the gymnasium wall, opportunities to take the stage for a talent show, VIP passes to a multi-school rock concert (starring a Bellevue University faculty band member), and even lunch with Gilson at a Clay Center country club. Radabaugh says the whole community gets in on the fun, with everyone contributing ideas, teachers donning costumes, nearby businesses providing cookies, and an area theater owner even opening doors for a special Christmas-week showing of The Polar Express.

Radabaugh describes the holiday event: “Each classroom had been given an earlier assignment to read The Polar Express. But they were spectacularly surprised to learn that ‘conductor’ Dr. Gilson would be giving each of them a golden ticket to attend the movie. When they arrived at the theater, townspeople dressed as elves met them with candy and popcorn. Needless to say, our students were thrilled beyond description.”

But Radabaugh says, it’s about more than celebration—educators want each event to provide a new learning experience, help develop camaraderie, and expand horizons, perhaps giving students opportunities not otherwise available to them. “At the end of The Polar Express, as everyone filed out of the theater, one family with three children approached Dr. Gilson, thanking him for their wonderful afternoon. We learned later that it had been their first-ever trip to a movie theater. As they turned to leave, one of the little boys ran back and hugged Dr. Gilson, saying, ‘That was the best day ever!’”

From interest to ownership

South Central Unified high schools have also begun offering college-access and career pathways through their Nebraska Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) program. “At the elementary and middle school level,” says Radabaugh, “we’re working to prepare students for this program through hands-on learning activities and a renewed focus on nonfiction reading. Accelerated Reader 360 contributes directly, providing a wealth of built-in nonfiction content and by serving as a jumping-off point for research-based projects. Which is where those marshmallow chicks come in. This spring, students developed Peeps®-at-work strategies using a variety of career and marketing-related texts. On another occasion, students who met their reading goals spent the day working on STEM projects with representatives from the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. The leprechaun traps were an exercise in building simple machines, with workability judged by our very mechanically-minded janitor.

“At the elementary and middle school level,” says Radabaugh, “we’re working to prepare students for this program through hands-on learning activities and a renewed focus on nonfiction reading. Accelerated Reader 360 contributes directly, providing a wealth of built-in nonfiction content and by serving as a jumping-off point for research-based projects."

Sharon Radabaugh
Paraprofessional – South Central Unified School District

STEM Project STEM Project
Inspired by the nonfiction content in Accelerated Reader 360, students have created various research-based projects.

“Accelerated Reader 360 lets students choose books about topics that interest them. We know that if you encourage students to read what they want, they’ll read more, learn more, and improve their scores, not just in reading but in all subjects. The program has been a great success for our students, helping them take more ownership of their learning, focus their energy, and develop real-world skills that will serve them well in high school and beyond.”

Not everyone would see the educational potential in a few rolls of duct tape, marked-down boxes of marshmallow chicks, handmade traps for leprechauns, and boisterous rock concerts. Nor does every school district expect to achieve a 100 percent college acceptance rate. But the talented educators at the South Central Unified School District in rural Clay County and Nuckolls County, Nebraska, ply equal parts creativity and high expectations to inspire exceptional reading-driven achievement. The district indeed boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, with an impressive enrollment rate of 87 percent.

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