Prince William County school officials are considering making changes to the required summer reading program after a report showed that nearly a third of students didn't turn in the work this fall.
The summer reading assignment counts as 10 percent of a student's first-quarter grade. Thus, students who don't do the reading start the year with a substantial hurdle to overcome, said School Board member Steven Keen (Woodbridge), an opponent of the mandatory program.
"I've been hearing a lot of displeasure about it, and rightfully so," said Keen. "Instead of engendering a lifelong love of reading, it seems we're actually engendering a lifelong hatred of reading."
Although the overall failure rate was around 32 percent, some schools had much higher rates of students shirking the requirement.
For example, 20 percent of the students at Brentsville Middle/High School did not do the reading, while 71 percent skipped it at Potomac High School.
At the middle-school level, the failure rate ranged from 10 percent at Saunders Middle to 63 percent at Stonewall Middle. At the elementary schools, only 3 percent of students at Bristow Run Elementary failed to do the assignments, but 70 percent of the students at West Gate Elementary did not comply.
School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said he would not recommend stopping the two-year-old program but acknowledged the need for modifications. The problem is finding a way to keep students reading over the summer without penalizing them, he said.
"What should be done to enforce it without being punitive?" Kelly said. "Our concern is that we keep youngsters reading. We all understand that there's a drop from the time youngsters leave in the spring and when they come back in the fall."
Prince William is the only Virginia school district to require summer reading for all students, although several other districts compile suggested reading lists. Students in kindergarten through second grade must read five books; third- through fifth-graders three books; and sixth- through 12th-graders two books.
Students can pick from a list of titles, which must include about five times as many books as their summer requirement. They also must complete assignments along with the reading, from maintaining a book log to writing a short review or illustrating a favorite scene.
School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) said that programs such as mandatory summer reading can always be reevaluated but that she thinks it should be mandatory.
Students "are off for over 11 weeks," she said. "I've had students do the mandatory reading, and it has not been such a strain on us that they couldn't do it during the 11 weeks."
Diane Haven, the parent of a sixth-grader at Rippon Middle School and a second-grader at Leesylvania Elementary School, wrote Kelly earlier this month to complain about the mandatory summer reading. Those schools had a failure rate of 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
Haven said her children did the assignments but didn't enjoy it.
"I really think reading is a great thing," Haven said. "I just really think their resources could be better spent."
Summer school could be used for slower readers, she suggested.
Keen said schools should work with the programs already in place at the Prince William County Library System. The summer reading programs there reward students with small prizes, such as pizza coupons and discounted tickets to Splashdown Waterpark, for reading a certain number of books. The program also should be voluntary, not mandatory, he said.
"We should stop trying to reinvent the wheel," Keen said. "Nobody is encouraged [to read] by a club hanging over their head. We should be encouraging them with a carrot in front of them."