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Ashland School flexes reading muscle

Helman Elementary School principal Glenna Stiles isn’t sure that students there spent more time this school year reading than usual while they attempted to meet an ambitious goal set eight months ago.

But the number, she admits, was still quite impressive: One million minutes.

That’s how much time the Helman student body collectively spent cuddled up with books during the 2014-15 school year, meeting the goal set last October and claiming its incentive prize on Monday when Stiles climbed up onto the school’s roof in the morning and spent the entire day up there.

What did she do? She was mostly reading, of course.

“And we picked today because it was already silly hair and hat day,” said Stiles, who sported a squid hat as she kicked back in a lawn chair, an umbrella and a book by her side. “We kind of put the two things together. If we’re going to be disruptive, we’re going to be really disruptive.”

The school hit the mark for the program, titled “Read more for Jack Dorr,” about two weeks ago and celebrated the accomplishment with an assembly, during which the school’s library was renamed The Dorr Family Library. The program’s namesake was an avid reader before he died in May 2014 at age 10 following a year-and-a-half battle with brain cancer.

Dorr’s mother, Trish Dorr, a fourth-grade teacher at Helman, supported the program by purchasing a copy of the children’s classic "Charlotte’s Web" for every student, a donation that amounted to about 300 books.

“Trish chose ("Charlotte’s Web") because it’s timeless, it’s classic and it’s a story about friendship and love,” Helman reading specialist Becky Mizera said. “It’s also ageless, so the youngest students in our school could enjoy it as well as the oldest.”

After Stiles climbed about 15 feet up a ladder to a section of roof that overlooked the playground Monday morning, the students gathered below and serenaded her by singing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “You are my Sunshine,” two of her favorite songs. The moment moved Stiles, who is leaving Helman following the school year to take a counseling job at Ashland High School (Michelle Cuddeback, currently a fifth-grade teacher at Helman, will take over for Stiles).

“So part of it was a little thank-you and goodbye, too, so it was pretty touching,” she said. “And just seeing all those sweet little faces with their goofy hair and their wigs and their crazy hats, and all the teachers — yeah, it was pretty special.”

The brainchild of Dorr and Mizera, the reading program was kicked off Oct. 3 during an assembly, during which the goal and incentive — Stiles on the roof — were explained. The school’s reading progress was tracked on the scales of a giant green dragon cutout mounted in the gym. To reach their goal, each student needed to read an average of 20 minutes a day, five days a week for 36 weeks.

Stiles wasn’t surprised that they met that goal with time to spare because, to many students at Helman, she said, a good book is something to get excited about.

“We’re kind of readers,” she said. “As a school, we pride ourselves in the fact that we read a lot. I’m not convinced that they read a whole lot more than they normally read, it’s just that we added (the minutes) up. Maybe some kids did. Maybe it was motivation for that extra 10 minutes to read on a Saturday when they normally wouldn’t have read.”

The program was great, Stiles added, because it brought home the message that reading is important, and fun. In Stiles’ home, she practices what she preaches. Her son, Helman fifth-grader Sam Stiles, has always been a reader. As a second-grader Sam Stiles became obsessed with Goosebumps, the popular thriller series written by R.L. Stine. At first, Glenna Stiles was concerned that her son wasn’t branching out, but a friend reassured her: If he’s reading for pleasure, let him be. She took that advice, and now is happy she did.

Plenty of other students at Helman are also reading for pleasure, and the Read More for Jack Dorr program simply attached a figure to what Stiles already suspected.

“I see this as extra motivation for certain kids, but in a package just really honoring how much we’ve always been reading,” she said, “and that we will continue to read because all the research says that the way you get better at reading is to read. So the more we can get kids with a book in their hands, or even having parents read to them, because listening builds those comprehension skills, it’s huge. It’s just a part of our whole literacy goal.

“We can teach them so much here at school, and we do — we work really hard at that. But that extra reading every single day at home is really what makes the difference.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Helman Elementary School Principal Glenna Stiles spends Monday on the roof of the school, which coincided with 'Funny Hat Day.' Stiles was on the roof as part of a promise to the students for reaching their collective reading goal. Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.