Elementary schools in Racine, WI, were offered a tough challenge: read one million books during the 2011/2012 school year and win a $100,000 school library makeover.
The town delivered, with 10,000 K-fifth graders in more than 500 public and private schools reading over 1.8 million books—and the grand prize going to Wadewitz Elementary School for completing 424,067 titles.
“Our numbers were so large that people came to see us because they were thought we were cooking the books,” says Wadewitz Elementary Principal Chad Chapin, who had just launched a literacy push to help the 70 percent of his students who were reading below grade level. “We found our kids weren’t reading independently, so we increased our classroom libraries, bought Fountas and Pinnell, leveled all the kids, and encouraged them to choose books at their levels, and books they were interested in reading.”
When “Racine Reads: Dream Big“—a program sponsored by local company SC Johnson, a maker of household cleaning products—came along, Chapin knew it fit perfectly with his endeavor. Launched October 1, 2011, the challenge kicked off with a 10,000 book giveaway, including titles from “Max and Ruby” author Rosemary Wells, who also visited the town during the reading challenge.
Residents kept track by watching numbers updated on the public library’s bookmobile, and politicians, including Mayor John Dickert, visited schools to read books to children, says Jessica MacPhail, Racine Public Library’s director. As incentives, kids who read 25 books won pizza parties for their classes, and the first 50 classes where students read 50 books won a roller-skating party, she adds.
While children were encouraged to read independently, older grades read to younger grades—and teachers also read often to students. As a result, bookmobile checkouts soared 30 percent since January, with circulation up 25 percent at the main library in the first quarter, adds MacPhail.
“I can’t tell you how many kids told me they were going to read one million books by themselves,” she says. You can’t buy that spirit—and you can’t teach it.”
Wadewitz Elementary students read nearly half a million books all on their own—totaling 637 titles for each child—and landed them a library makeover.
Chapin already has big plans for his new media center. He plans to give students a 21st century library to replace the 50-year-old space, where the carpet is held together by duct tape. At the top of his list? A computer lab and ebooks to give his school librarian and media technology specialist Kathleen Kis more tools to work effectively with students.
SC Johnson spent approximately $250,000 on the challenge, says a spokesperson, who adds it’s uncertain whether Racine Reads will become an annual event.
But educators already see its lasting impact on children.
“When we started, we had students reading five minutes on their own, then 10 minutes the next week, then 15,” says Chapin. “Now the kids can read independently. From K-5, they can read up to 30 minutes a day. And they’ve naturally just developed an interest in reading.”