Carson City’s Empire Elementary takes a different approach to reading

Students are recognized each day for reading a number of books as part of the Reach for the Stars program at Empire Elementary School.

Students are recognized each day for reading a number of books as part of the Reach for the Stars program at Empire Elementary School.

When students of Empire Elementary School were asked about their confidence in reading, 55 percent out of 568 students enrolled in K-5 said they felt good about their reading skills.

However, only 42 percent of those students felt reading was enjoyable.

The data was gathered from a survey last year by the school, as the homework rate fell to 60 percent for reading completion at the end of the first quarter – a concerning number, said Nathan Brigham, reading implementation facilitator.

“We also asked students why they read,” he said. “Most responded the main reason why they read is because it’s homework and they were told to. They’re not enthusiastic about that.”

Because of these results, Empire Elementary decked the halls with planets, stars, and galactic characters to promote “Reach for the Stars,” a new approach to integrate more literature into homework, and encourage students to become better readers.

The program was launched during fourth quarter of the 2016 school year.

When students complete a book, their name and photo is glued onto a star to staple on a bulletin board outside of the classroom to showcase.

It’s a change of culture in the school, said Principal Susan Squires.

“The key is setting a goal to achieve,” she said. “Students are earning star recognitions through book-talk. We don’t present it to kids as you don’t have to do homework — all you’re doing is reading. It shouldn’t feel like a chore.”

From biographies to fiction, or from poetry to textbooks, students can pick a book of interest to read for 20 minutes at home.

To show proof of comprehension, students may take a quiz based on the book through a computer program at the school, which supports up to 8,000 titles.

If students aren’t interested in taking the quiz — or if a book isn’t listed in the quiz database — they can either write a report or present the novel to class.

As for Pre-K students, parents are required to sign a form to confirm their child has completed the reading assignment. The school is also focused on ESL programs and provides reading packets translated in Spanish.

As it’s Squires’ first year serving as principal at Empire Elementary, she’s already seeing positive results from the program; students have read more than 25,000 books, popularity ranging from Dr. Suess to the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne.

“The biggest thing I see is excitement,” she said. “We have one class tracking how many pages are read by each student. Our librarian ordered another set of books on high demand by students.”

The program isn’t necessarily eliminating homework in the school, Brigham said.

“We have homework but it’s not mandated or due the next day,” he said. “If you look district-wide, we flat lined in our proficiency over the past few years. It’s been a concern to improve achievement results, but no big changes have taken place to change that.”

Instead, reading assignments may boost results to support the Read By Third Grade act, a bill passed during the 2015 legislative session that requires Nevada schools to have students proficient in reading by third grade.

Carson City School District’s homework policy has a distinctive concept that applies to all district schools, said Superintendent Richard Stokes. The district’s homework policy encourages educators to use a variety of valid techniques to apply to homework routines, he said.

“We allow our principals a fair amount of autonomy with initiatives and can adjust if they need to,” he said. “We want homework related to accomplishments made in the classroom. At a district level, activities are to be related to the enrichment of the subject material at the end of the day.”

Empire Elementary teachers such as Amethyst Holt of second grade incorporates her assignments with art projects, to show what students learned in history or social studies during the week.

Schools such as Bordewich Bray Elementary also adopted a similar approach to enhance proficiency by hosting Reading Week in February – along with reading sessions that featured local community members and themed dress-up days.

As far as feedback goes on the program, some teachers and parents are on the fence with it as they prefer a traditional approach to homework, Brigham said.

Brigham received this feedback as he contributed to the launch of the program.

“Lower grade teachers are more concerned about students who struggle,” he said. “They argued it’s extra practice. But upper grade parents are concerned it promotes laziness.”

Fifth-grade teacher Terry Snelling said she likes the idea of the program, however, the parents of her students are concerned, as they expressed to her they don’t read after school hours.

As a teacher for the school for 28 years, she said she has seen a decrease in reading over the years.

“I’m not sure if it will improve students,” she said. “I get the pros and cons of homework but they are not going home to enjoy reading. But to fix this, the class has a 20-minute silent sustained reading. My class has read over 300 books and reading veraciously has earned their stars but just not at home.”

But as for fourth-grade teacher Toni Nielsen, she enjoys watching her students participate in reading activities with other classrooms.

“It’s been fantastic,” she said. “There’s friendly competition. As a teacher, I’ve been more motivated. They express so much excitement about taking the quizzes.”

Since 1927, researchers have studied the value of homework and how it affects students outside of the classroom.

The most extensive study on this topic was published in 2006, by neuroscientist and social psychologist Harris Cooper of Duke University. He surveyed 120 studies over the course of 16 years to find if an amount of homework associated with academic achievement.

He found homework had no academic benefit on elementary school students, including those with learning disabilities. However, homework is beneficial for middle and high school students.

Cooper’s study also shows parents who were more involved in their child’s homework had lower test scores and grades and a student’s ability to complete homework may depend on factors out of their control.

“If students are spending the rest of the evening doing homework, they’re not going to get a chance to read,” Brigham said. “And if they don’t read, they don’t get to take a quiz or have their star displayed. As a parent myself, it’s my responsibility to tell them to read.”

Brigham said homework was always an issue for his two sons as other activities took place after school, which puts pressure on the family.

Cooper’s study isn’t about eliminating homework but encourages more authentic assignments – on top of being in school for seven hours every weekday, Brigham said.

“For some kids, it would take them a half an hour to complete homework,” he said. “But also for some kids, all they would be doing is filling in the blanks. It’s practicing written facts. Assignments are only going to be meaningful to a third of your kids.”

When the quarter concludes, Squires and Brigham will release the same survey to students again and compare results from the beginning of the year.

Although other schools in the area haven’t adopted a similar technique, Stokes said principals may collaborate on methods to achieve results.

“All good teachers will monitor and adjust,” he said. “The typical understanding of our district is to oversee that and ensure it’s relevant to the curriculum.”

“It’s been a concern to improve achievement results,” Brigham said. “We’re looking for different results so we have to step outside of the box.”


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