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Contributed photo Students from the Rocking Readers’ Club at East Rockingham Elementary School brush up on their English language arts skills on an early Friday morning.

ROCKINGHAM — What began as an incentive to increase attendance at East Rockingham Elementary School on Fridays blossomed into a cooperative education experience that made reading fun — the “Rocking Readers’ Club.”

It began in October 2014 and wrapped up a successful first year last week.

“We had a vision and were looking at ways to increase attendance,” said Principal Jamie Greene. “Attendance has been an issue throughout the school district. We noticed that Fridays were days with the most student absences or with students coming in late, so we developed this initiative.”

Fifth-grade English language arts teacher Shannon Haywood suspected there were ways to entice students to school on time, or at all, on Fridays. She considered numerous factors, including suggestions from colleagues.

“I wondered, ‘How can the most kids be impacted?” Haywood said. “Some people had mentioned it would be good to have a book club, and we decided that pairing up older students to younger students would be a great benefit. Every fifth-grader and about 25-30 fourth-graders were assigned to K-3 kids.”

Haywood said the Rocking Readers’ Club, held every Friday morning starting at 8 a.m., got the older students involved in reading to the younger students by broadening their vocabulary and comprehension skills and even conducting mini-novel units.

“They became the teachers,” Haywood said.

Greene said she believes that is what made the most difference and that placing students in a leadership role as important as teaching made them both confident and more enthusiastic about being in school.

“A lot of the classrooms invited Mrs. Haywood back to the final session last Friday,” Greene said. “And our younger students, when they see their Rocking Reader in the hall, now walk up and tell them how they are doing — that they passed their test, or achieved goals in their classes. That relationship is so important. There are high-fives everywhere in the school.”

With teachers already on a rigid daily schedule and time a valuable and scarce commodity, Haywood and Greene said the club never interfered with the regular instructional time required for any subject since meetings start prior to the beginning of the school day. Greene said the children willingly gave their own time, rushing to be at school by 8 a.m. on Fridays even though the official school day begins at 8:15.

“And even then, that’s when buses are still coming in and prior to morning announcements,” Greene said. “It was so effective that some teachers even asked if their students could meet with their Rocking Reader partners on additional days of the week, and we let them.”

As for the program’s effectiveness as increasing attendance on Fridays, the metrics say it all.

“We looked at the data and reviewed our attendance on Fridays,” Greene said. “It made a difference in a positive way.”

Haywood said that out of the 110 participants, 85 students rose to 80 percent or higher rates of attendance on Fridays.

“Even the others who didn’t get quite to 80 percent were only a little behind, in the upper 70s range,” Haywood said.

Greene said that for next year, there are plans to start up a similar program for math.

“Maybe a Math Morning,” she said. “We’ll have to come up with something catchy for the name like we did with the Rocking Readers.”

Haywood said one of biggest surprises for her came when she asked each teacher to choose their top readers — and in more cases than expected, those ended up being kids who had participated in the club, kids who were not necessarily the top-level students all around. This was true for the Rocking Readers as well as their younger students.

“The Rocking Readers had a lot of responsibilities,” Haywood said. “They had to be there on four Fridays of the month, select materials for their meetings and they would even discuss planning together on their own time, just like teachers. They took this seriously. The attendance ended up being, for me, the secondary benefit.”

Greene said that while the initiative began as an attendance drive, the school soon noticed how it affected the students in a positive way not limited to attendance alone.

“And it was free,” she added.

“My personal educational philosophy is that children need time to learn, space to learn and materials to learn,” Haywood said. “The students didn’t see it as, ‘Oh, another reading.’ They see it as, ‘Oh, a chance to read.’ And parents know about Rocking Readers. At conferences they would talk about it.”

Bringing creative ideas that work into the county’s classrooms is what talented teachers and administrators strive for, but it’s not easy to find the right fit. It requires educators who know their students and what it takes to bring out the best in them, then going the extra mile to make it happen.

“It’s been a really good program, so we’re already looking ahead to next year at what other creative initiatives we can implement,” Greene said.

Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.