Sequoyah Middle principal issues reading challenge

Sequoyah Middle School Principal Stephanie Johnson found out quickly there will be war, and little chance for peace, when it comes to a new reading competition at the school, between herself and her students.

On Monday, the school began its "Readers are Leaders Campaign," in which Johnson is challenging each of the school's 766 students to read more books, and score more Accelerated Reader points, than she does in weekly competitions that will last through April 1.

The prizes include "a day without uniform dress" passes, a lunch paid for out of Johnson's pocket, and a school dance. With rewards like those on the line, some students said they are eager to outread their principal.

"The thing I'm most looking forward to about this competition is beating her," seventh-grader, Celine Avoudikpon, 12, said as she sat across a table from her principal in the school's media center.

Johnson said she issued the challenge as a way to get more of her students to read books. One of the reasons it is important for the students to regularly read books, she said, is that it affects their performance on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs).

"If they don't know how to read, then they will struggle in all areas of the CRCTs, from science to social studies to mathematics, because the questions are written out," the principal said.

Sequoyah Media Specialist Rebecca Stewart posts the number of books students have read in the school's cafeteria. There are long lists, that run a quarter of the length of the wall, with the names of students who have read one or two books since August.

That number drops, however, when it gets to the number of students who have read three books. Stewart said the reading goal for February is for students to have read at least 17 books up to that point during the school year. There are only a dozen pupils whose names are posted for reading at least that number.

"Our [book] circulation is not as high as we would like it to be," Johnson said. "We need to do something to get them to read more."

Stewart said she had been the challenger in the competition in previous years, but it was mostly the sixth-graders who were the ones who got excited about it. So, she said she decided to up the ante, to build more interest, by getting Johnson to be the person students had to beat.

"What's great about it is just the suspense of it all, and knowing that I will beat her," said seventh-grader, Mikel McClain, 13.

"I like that we're being rewarded for reading books," said sixth-grader, Eldred Eady, 12.

Stewart said the Accelerated Reader points that will be the measuring stick for how contestants are doing in the Readers are Leaders Campaign, are earned by students, and Johnson, by reading a book and then taking a test on the book on computers that are located in the school's media center.

The amount of points a person earns for correctly answering all of the test questions is based on the word count and the complexity of the book, Stewart said.

"If you have a short, upper-level book, you won't get as many points as you would if you read a longer, upper-level book," Stewart said.

Johnson said the first book she will read in the campaign is Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," which will garner her 15 Accelerated Reader points, if she correctly answers all of the questions on the book's Accelerated Reader test.

But she's got some competition. One student, eighth-grader Nur Awad, 13, said she is more than halfway through Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind." If Awad gets a perfect score on the "Gone with the Wind" Accelerated Reader test, she said she will pick up 72 points.

Awad said, however, it is not the rewards that she considers to be the most important reason for reading books during the period of the competition. "I think [the campaign is] exciting and suspenseful, but I really like reading, and I would probably read a lot of books anyway, even if there was no competition," she said.

Since the students are rewarded for seeing who can garner more points during the period of competition, several pupils were already taking Accelerated Reader tests on Monday, for books they read just prior to the beginning of the competition.

"I got 20 points today," sixth-grader, Alexis Rodriguez, 12, said to Johnson.

"Today? I have a lot of reading to do then," Johnson replied.