New chapter to encourage reading at Edmondson Heights Elementary

Edmondson Heights students have 750 new books to read

Oh, the places they'll go, now that students at Edmondson Heights Elementary School have 750 new books to read in their very own jungle-themed space.

The special Dr. Ben Carson Reading Room, provided to the school by the Carson Scholars Fund, features bean bag chairs, carpet and a small couch for students to enjoy reading in comfort.

"We've had lots of classes going in since it opened," said Kristin Weston, a reading specialist at the school who has created a schedule for classes to use the room on a rotational basis.

"They're very excited to go in and use the room, and they often ask when they can go back," Weston said.

Although the school has a library with 11,000 books, it is often used for research and academics, Weston said.

"The Ben Carson reading is just a place for reading for pleasure," she said, adding that the school hopes the new facility will encourage a love of reading.

The room was unveiled to the students after a special morning assembly at the school on Feb. 11.

"We've been keeping a secret from you for the past several weeks, and after school and on weekends, we have been creating a special reading room upstairs in the computer lab," said interim principal Juliet McDivitt to an auditorium full of excited children. "The back area has been transformed into a magical and wild reading space."

The reading room was created by eight teachers on the Ben Carson Committee at the school. In addition to Weston, the group included Shawna Jones, Whitney Plunkett, Kelly McLaughlin, Kelly Asliyalfani, Lisa Cornejo, Kathryn Hutson and Jennifer Lape.

During the assembly, a slideshow of books stocked in the reading room was shown to students. Titles such as "Island of the Blue Dolphins", "Goodnight Moon", "Great Scientists" and "Who was Nelson Mandela?" drew an outcry of enthusiasm from students.

Nakia Winchester, an Edmondson Heights resident who spearheaded the effort in her role as parent service coordinator at the school, said one of her goals for the year was to increase the level of reading.

"I thought the Ben Carson room would be a great way to do that," said Winchester, whose daughter, Shakiya, is in third grade at the school on Langford Road.

Courtney Davis, 10, a fourth-grader at the school, was among the first students to test out the room. Courtney said he liked the room because, "It has books and decorations and it makes you feel calm."

He said he is looking forward to reading Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, which is popular among students at the school, he said.

Winchester had the idea when she saw a Ben Carson reading room featured on the TV news.

"I came into work the next day and got on the computer, and then I gave them a call," Winchester said.

She called the Ben Carson Reading Room Project, and set up an appointment with a representative from the organization.

The Ben Carson Scholars Fund and Reading Room Project were both founded by Dr. Ben Carson, an accomplished pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Children's Center for more than 29 years.

Funding for the reading room at Edmondson Heights was provided by the Hillendale Country Club Ladies' Book Club in Phoenix, a group that has raised money for similar rooms at Dogwood Elementary in Windsor Mill, Randallstown Elementary and the SEED School of Maryland in Baltimore.

"We worked with the Carson team to select the schools," said Laura Hudson, a representative from the group, who spoke at the assembly. "We wanted to find schools in Baltimore County, if possible, that needed additional resources."

The Carson project established its first reading room in 2000 at Hall's Cross Roads Elementary School in Aberdeen, according to the organization's website.

There are 11 throughout Baltimore County, from Jacksonville in the north to Villa Crest in the northeast to Randallstown in the southwest. The first in the county was established in 2003 at the Wellwood International School in Pikesville.

Now there are 119 in 16 states, Warner said

Each reading room costs $15,000, said Amy Warner, executive director of the Carson Scholars Fund, in an email.

The school was able to buy books, bean bag chairs, couches, carpets, bookshelves and organizing materials with the money to create the space, Weston said.

"I think it will provide them a love for reading," Winchester said. "I know the kids here already have a love for books."

Third-grade reading scores in the annual Maryland School Assessments for Edmondson Heights declined from 76.9 percent at advanced or proficient levels in 2012 to 76.3 percent in 2013 to 57.1 percent in 2014, state data shows.

Fourth-grade scores rose from 84.8 tin 2012 to 89.3 in 2013 then declined to 75 percent in 2014. Fifth-grade scores declined from 82.7 percent in 2012 to 81.5 in 2013 the increased to 85.2 percent in 2014.

Like Hall's Cross Roads, Edmondson Heights is a Title I school, which means it receives additional federal funding because it has a high percentage of students from low-income families

Many kids at the local school don't have access to books beyond their school library or the public library, Weston said.

"This just another avenue for them to read selections that they might not have access to in their classroom or at home," Weston said.

Books were chosen by the same eight teachers at the school who worked on creating the room. The group selected books they thought the students would like, Weston said.

She said she chose the books that she grew up with — those written by authors Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.

Teachers at the school often find that boys are less likely to get excited about reading than girls, McDivitt said.

"We made a concerted effort to include books of multiple genres, because we know that males, in general, prefer nonfiction, so we included lots and lots of science based books, graphic novels, which we know from our librarian are something that boys are particularly drawn to," McDivitt said.

"In school, we often focus so much on teaching phonics skills, reading strategies for comprehension, that sometimes the love of reading gets lost," McDivitt said. "This room not only gives the students an opportunity to ignite that passion, but it reminds us as the adults in the building, how important the love of reading is."

"We're going to incorporate it into the Language Arts program," McDivitt said, who grew up loving books.

"It is really what largely inspired me to go into education, so I think personally I'm just so excited for our students to have a space like this that is dedicated to fun," McDivitt said.

"The plan for the room is to use it as much as possible — to have it full of children, every minute of every day," she said.

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