As the story goes, it was the sound of snapping fingers that turned an ordinary school principal, Benny Krupp, into superhero Captain Underpants.1 But in Lakewood, Washington, it was the unusual quiet of 460 elementary students reading hundreds of library books that brought on the transformation. Spurred on by a challenge from their principal, John Mitchell, Four Heroes Elementary students read more than two million words in one week—just for the fun of seeing Mr. Mitchell appear as a convincing, albeit decidedly taller and slimmer version of the tighty-whities-clad character!
Britni Proudman is the Four Heroes Elementary library media specialist and manages the school’s reading program, built around Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®. She says that the comic adventures of Mitchell reflect much more than his inherent geniality and good nature. “His early buy-in and continued support of the program helped spark a dramatic change in attitudes toward reading. What students once viewed as a tedious chore, they now approach with true eagerness. In just our first year of using Accelerated Reader 360, we’ve experienced tremendous success, including increased English language arts proficiency and an unprecedented enthusiasm for reading across the school. Mr. Mitchell’s personal commitment really lit the program on fire, as he encouraged educators to implement the program with fidelity, cheered on our students, and helped everyone celebrate their accomplishments.”
The challenge: Build excitement for reading without adding to teacher workload
One of 23 schools in the Clover Park School District in Pierce County, Washington, Four Heroes Elementary School serves about 720 K–5 students. The school opened in 2015 and was named to celebrate the lives of four local police officers killed in the line of duty. From its beginning, the school has emphasized the value of optimism and hope in achieving student success. In 2017, Four Heroes was designated a model school by Kids at Hope,2 a group that empowers organizations to create environments where all children succeed.
The school recently received a grant from the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries. Proudman says the grant will fund new library materials to further excitement about reading. “The Four Heroes objective for student achievement includes ensuring that 85 percent of our students meet or exceed grade-level performance in every area, including literacy, science, and math. Because reading skills are fundamental to achievement in every area, a key focus across the school has been to help students develop a passion for reading.”
Proudman explains that her own and other teachers’ prior experience with Accelerated Reader 360 at schools in Arizona and California suggested the program would be beneficial as a reading-enrichment tool at Four Heroes. “We needed a tool that could help change behavior toward reading activities, that would facilitate more parent involvement, and at the same time would not add to a teacher’s workload. Accelerated Reader 360 meets all of those requirements, and it’s a largely self-run program that offloads a lot of planning activities to give teachers more instruction time in the classroom.”
The results: Avid readers, achievement growth, and more teaching time
Four Heroes now uses Accelerated Reader 360 across all 19 second- through fifth-grade classes. Proudman continues, “We also add high-performing first graders to the program as they develop the requisite basic skills. The results during our first year using Accelerated Reader 360 were so dramatic that we saw increased demand from parents to include more of their children in the program. Today, parents routinely tell us about the positive changes they’ve observed, from children reading on their own and without prompting at home to newfound interest in the school’s book fairs—and for the books, not the activities and refreshments!
“It’s difficult to teach a willingness to read—it’s an intangible inclination that I think Accelerated Reader 360 helps foster by giving students the freedom to pick interesting books, by promoting their success with appropriately leveled books and articles, and by providing instant feedback. When students realize that they can read, they start to want to read. After watching our success in engaging students, educators at one of our sister schools, Dower Elementary School, also recently adopted Accelerated Reader 360.”
“Accelerated Reader 360 definitely contributes to the growth of students,” adds Tabatha Rowden, technology specialist at Four Heroes. “Over the course of the year, for example, the number of our fourth-grade students performing at benchmark increased by 33 percent. One of the most useful features of Accelerated Reader 360 is the program’s collection of contemporary nonfiction articles. I make frequent use of the leveled texts to differentiate instruction for small groups. My students benefit from studying current events while they practice their highlighting and note-taking skills and learn about providing textual evidence.”
More time to teach
Proudman also emphasizes the time-saving benefits. “Finding relevant, up-to-date nonfiction articles can be very time-consuming for teachers. They could easily spend three hours or more searching for an appropriate text, targeting the skill(s) to develop, creating quiz questions, and then of course grading student papers. Accelerated Reader 360 automates all of that, eliminating hours of planning time so that instead of doing one article a week, teachers can assign one a day.”
Proudman cites additional time savings from rapid adoption and fast access to student progress data. “Today our teachers can very quickly check student performance on reading quizzes and make appropriate adjustments to instruction or assignments. As the school librarian, I spend time with every student, every single week and have seen the successes firsthand. During the recent reading challenge, for example, our students actually read two million, one hundred thirty thousand words in one week—that’s an accomplishment previously unheard of within our high-poverty demographics.
“Mr. Mitchell’s willingness to honor their achievement by donning a polka-dotted red cape really epitomizes the dedication of the Four Heroes community to making sure our students succeed. As he so eloquently said, ‘If looking ridiculous dressed up as Captain Underpants will encourage our kids to read, I’m happy to do it!’”
1 From the Captain Underpants children’s book series by author Dav Pilkey
2 Source: http://www.cloverpark.k12.wa.us/dept/CommunityRelations/HomeStories/2017-18/FH_Model_Nov2017.aspx and kidsathope.org