At the beginning of this school year, South Heart Public School expanded its sustained silent reading program (SSR) from just the high school to all of its classrooms. South Heart Elementary School Principal Jessica Geis said that from 8:30 to 8:50 a.m., all present in the classroom, including teachers and paraeducators, spends the first 20 minutes of their day reading.

“It started because we were trying to figure out a time for collaboration among teachers, and also getting students to read more. And our high school has done SSR for a few years. So we took the opportunity to create an SSR block schoolwide,” Geis said. “For the most part, it’s to have students choose the books that they want to read.”

The newest program adds to a school system that remains one of the top performing schools in the state, ranking 8th of 163 schools in the state according to a U.S. News and World Report list.

South Heart Public School students enjoy some quality time with their books in the library. (contributed photo / Jacky Walby)
South Heart Public School students enjoy some quality time with their books in the library. (contributed photo / Jacky Walby)

Geis explained that some of the younger students, such as those in kindergarten and first grade, aren’t quite ready for 20 full minutes of independent reading and so that period is used as story time in which a teacher, paraeducator or guest speaker reads aloud.

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Reading has long been proven to improve comprehension and student performance. In a study at Emory University, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of students before and after reading. In the days after reading, they found increased connectivity in the brain areas involved in receptivity for language, plus physical sensation and movement.

(Contributed / Calvin Dean)
(Contributed / Calvin Dean)

South Heart fifth grade teacher Leah Miller said the program has improved the learning environment in a multitude of ways. She said students love the first 20 minutes of their day, and that it’s building them as lifelong learners.

“This has allowed every student grades K to 12 to be immersed in books. I’ve seen an improvement in stamina, an increase in comprehension and really just the love of reading,” Miller said. “It’s so good, and they’re so focused.”

She stressed the importance of using the program to set a good example.

“Another thing that’s been really wonderful for the kids to see is that the adults (are reading too). I mean, we can tell them it’s important to read, but we’re sitting down with them,” Miller said. “It’s important for the kids to see that.”

On Wednesdays that time is typically used to collaborate with the other fifth grade teacher on successful teaching strategies, she said.

“Those are days when we talk about how we can change instruction to students’ needs, things that we need to look at differently and what we are doing that is successful,” Miller said. “So we’re meeting as a team… really looking at how we are building and growing them to be successful adults.”