Jaqueline Garcia, 17, had always been a hard-working student, but she didn’t like to read.
“I am a very shy person. That’s why math has always appealed to me: you don’t have to talk, to write, to express yourself,” she said.
A couple of years ago, one of Garcia’s teachers at North High School saw that Garcia kept switching books without finishing any. The teacher recommended a book specifically for her: “The Child Called It,” about a boy who had been abused.
Garcia loved it.
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But she was so busy with schoolwork, she didn’t have time to read. She had to check it out several times before she finally finished it. That experience changed her attitude, and, now, she and her friends sometimes talk about books even outside of class.
“I remember it wasn’t cool to read. People would say, ‘Ew, a book,’ and now I see a lot of people reading,” Garcia said. “My friends recommend books. It feels good, and then we can talk about them. It’s kind of like a TV show, ‘Oh did you see this.’”
NOT AN ACCIDENT
It turns out that Garcia’s newfound appreciation for books was no accident: North High has been undergoing a relatively small but focused effort to help students like her find joy in reading and, through that, hopefully, success in school.
The chairs of the English department, Elaine Klincik and Gaye Coburn, saw the research that said that students in college would have to read between 200 and 600 pages per week, on their own, and North High students were not close to that.
So they got the support of their principal and championed a small but important change to elevate the role of reading in the school: They designated half a period dedicated to students reading for passion, not just required schoolwork, called “Redskins Read.”
Although silent reading time is common in elementary schools and even some middle schools, by the time students get to high school, it is often forsaken for study time, as students scramble to get the class credits they need need to graduate.
But Klincik and Coburn thought it might make a difference at North, where many the students read below grade level. Nearly 1,000 of North’s 2,200 students qualify to test for English as their second language. And many other students, like Garcia, speak Spanish at home.
“Sometimes when I’m reading a book and don’t understand a word, I think about how, what if my parents weren’t Mexican? What if they did understand English? They could’ve helped me,” Garcia said. “But that’s not the case.”
If students like Garcia were reading material on the appropriate level, the teachers thought, they would build their vocabularies faster and learn to write better.
Every class was given a dedicated time to go to the library once a month to check out books. The number of students with library books jumped from between 10 and 20 percent to about 80 percent of students.
One of them was Garcia, who said that now when she finishes a good book, it feels like finishing a good TV show.
“It feels kind of like, what do I do now, what I do with my life?” Garcia said. “I need to find another book just as good.”
But not everyone’s story is as clear-cut a success as Garcia’s.
During one recent AP English class at North, several students were in the middle of thick books. But a number of others just grabbed a book off the shelf without looking to see what it was. They looked down at their books until the teacher looked away and then whispered and giggled with their friends.
Some other students, who were reading on their phones, flicked over to Facebook and texting, before flicking back to what they were supposed to be reading.
Jordan Bereseth, a senior honors student heading to Wichita State, was in the library to check out books Tuesday, but she said she usually doesn’t like to read. “If I have free time, sitting down isn’t really my thing,” Bereseth said. “I like to be active. I have a hard time sitting still.”
Ashlyn Page, her friend in the library Tuesday, put a finer point on what she’d rather be doing: “Literally anything else.”
But Berseth said she has read a handful of books in high school and started a dozen others. And she’s found a genre of books that she likes reading: about high class people in New York or L.A. That’s why she likes “The Catcher in the Rye,” she said.
She’s done more reading because she’s been forced to: “The past two years have been more focused,” she said. “You have to sit there and be quiet and read, and if you do homework or anything you get points taken off.”
That’s exactly what Page doesn’t like. She would read a romance novel on her own she said, but she’ll just use Spark Notes for anything assigned in class.
On Thursday, as students from nine classes across the school poured into the library to check out a book for the month, many huddled in groups and talked about playing basketball, or giggled over boys. Some headed straight for the bean bags and stared into their phones. A few perused the shelves for a book: Particularly popular is a bookshelf made to look like a Redbox movie dispenser.
Liliana Gucman, a senior, said she will read for fun every couple of weeks on her own, but often times it’s Spanish magazines she brings home or her aunt’s books written in Spanish. She gets distracted by her friends during reading at school, she said.
Gucman works 30 hours a week busing tables at a country club in addition to school. She wants to help her parents, who send money back to Mexico. So she doesn’t have much time to read. Her mom told her to stop working for a bit when her grades slipped, but neither of her parents graduated from high school and aren’t pushing her to read at home, she said.
Alondra Luna, a senior, said she liked to read the Bluford Series, books with black and Hispanic youth on the covers that deal with issues like gangs and pregnancy. But the series, which she started reading in middle school, is written on a fifth grade level, and isn’t challenging anymore.
The reading program started 2 1/2 years ago, Klincik said, so its full impact is still being felt. And many of the reading assessments the school has used have changed in the past few years, making it difficult to see if the program is having the intended impact.
The school has focused on reading, in addition to and on top of all the other reading interventions that the district requires. So during Redskins Read, several teachers can be seen in the hallway, testing students on how quickly they read and whether they have to continually stop to pronounce words.
These intervention programs often have changed, Klinick said, before it’s clear whether they have been effective. The hope is that the reading program can provide more continuity.
Over the course of the year, students will read for fewer than 50 hours total during Redskins Read time, so students won’t become college ready by this intervention alone.
But teachers hope that this intervention will nurture the kind of passion and independence necessary for many of these students to succeed in college on their own.
“I have kids telling me they are reading more than they ever have. ...” Klincik said. “I have quite a few who said they read a book this year for the first time and ‘I enjoyed it.’”
The Wichita Eagle’s series “Our Changing Schools” is spending extra time in four Wichita public schools this year, including North High School, to show how the city’s schools are adapting to prepare a new generation of students.