Young readers meet challenge

Rebecca Fritz likes the rewards from the Eagle Challenge reading program at Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia, but what really motivates her is learning about the stories.

"I like how the program encourages people to read because some children may not have been read to," the 8-year-old said. "It's really all about the reading."


Her favorite books involve nature and princesses, and she enjoys books by authors Gail Carlson Levine and Andrew Clements.

Rebecca's mother, Peggy, is a coach in the program, which began about eight years ago after a group of parents got together to promote a love of reading among schoolchildren.


"I enjoy books, and I think it's really important to help foster a love of reading and comprehension," said Peggy Fritz. "It's also so much more richer [for pupils] to have that parent-and-school combination working."

Fritz was motivated to get involved in the program because she said it was a natural extension of what her family does at home to encourage reading among her four children, including son Andrew, 10, who participates in Eagle Challenge.

"We've always made it a point to enrich their reading by spending time reading books in lieu of [playing] video games," she said.

The program was recently featured on Knowledge Network, the school's network on Comcast, as an exemplary reading program in Howard County. And school officials note that reading comprehension skills have improved among the pupils since the program's inception.

On a weekly basis, parents who are members of the school's Parent Teacher Association serve as reading coaches during the school day by reading to the children. They also play word or reading games.

The schoolchildren must commit to reading between 20 and 30 minutes a day at least 20 days a month, said Keith Bevans, co-chairman of the program.

The youngsters have opportunities to discuss the books the coaches read to them, as well as those they have read at home.

As added incentive, pupils are awarded prizes, including yo-yos, kickballs and Frisbees, which are given out on a monthly basis after the participants turn in calendars that record books they have read.


At the end of the year, T-shirts are provided to participants during a celebration.

"It's very rewarding because you really bond with the kids," said Bevans, who has been a coach in the program.

Bevans, who organizes the volunteers and takes care of other administrative work for the program, said about 70 percent of the school's approximately 400 pupils participate.

Gena Stanek got involved in the program during the early 1990s and is credited, along with a few other parents, with streamlining the paperwork generated by Eagle Challenge.

"It was cumbersome at first," she recalled. "There was one person trying to keep the records for all the students."

But that changed with the addition of more reading coaches who helped the program run smoothly.


"When you have a program that parents feel is valuable, you don't have a problem getting volunteers," Stanek said.

Stanek, the mother of two in high school and middle school, said she is working on a similar program at Harper's Choice Middle School. "I truly do believe in the program. It works," she said.

She added that the pupils were especially grateful for the program.

"They would come up to me and give me hug and thank me," she said.

Carol McGinnis, a reading specialist at the school, said the program has had a positive effect on the school's performance on the Maryland State Assessment tests.

After comparing four similar schools, the reading scores showed that Longfellow pupils scored the second-highest among the schools for third grade and the highest for fifth grade.


"The long-term effects on the emphasis on independent reading supported by the Eagle Challenge can easily be seen there," McGinnis said, referring to the test scores.

McGinnis also praised the PTA for organizing the program.

"We have a consistent group of dedicated parents who come in to read to the students," she said.