Staff at L.B. Williams Elementary School, students and their families came together Tuesday night to celebrate a love of reading following a semester-long, school-wide reading exercise.

From October through December, students at the school read the book "School Days According To Humphrey," a tale by Betty R. Birney that chronicles the story of Humphrey, a hamster who returns to his school classroom after summer break only to find a group of strange students in his room. He eventually realizes the students are his new classmates, and he sets off to learn about them.

The students read the book a chapter at a time over the course of a few months at home with parents, their siblings and in their classrooms with their teachers. The project is part of the One School, One Book program, which itself is a part of the Read to Them program, and promotes the benefits of reading aloud. The program's website cites studies that show that reading to children helps them to better listen and understand, builds larger vocabularies and allows for them to better understand concepts and feel positive about both reading and learning.

Those affects are augmented by application in a school-wide reading exercise, which is what faculty at L.B. Williams set out to do this semester.

“A colleague of mine had done the project at their school, so we started looking into it last year and my team of teachers did some reviews of books and what would fit for our level of students,” said Becky Roth, principal at L.B. Williams Elementary.

The group selected the book through the Read To Them program based on its potential appeal to both older and younger students. Thanks to funding provided through Title I Family Engagement and the Mitchell Area Charitable Foundation, the school purchased a copy for the book for every family with children at the school, which was about 342 copies. Together about $3,000 was put toward the project thanks to that funding, Roth said.

“We paired that money together and were able to buy the book for every family,” Roth said.

The Read To Them program also provided some curriculum materials to the school to help with their endeavors. But the combined efforts of school staff, parents, community members and students are what really set the project apart, Roth said.

In addition to the students in grades K-5 taking part in the program, along with their parents and teachers, members of the Mitchell community joined in to support the effort. Individuals like Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District; Bob Everson, mayor of Mitchell; and students from Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University all recorded video of themselves reading a particular chapter and encouraged the students to read aloud with them. Even Birney, the author of the book, contributed video recordings to the school. The videos were posted to the school website for convenient use at home and in the classroom.

Heather Carlson, a teacher at L.B. Williams who helped organize the project, said the community involvement made the project extra special. It also added to the group concept of the exercise.

“With every chapter, we brought in people from the community to read. Teachers could use it as a read-aloud or could read it in class, or they might pull it up on their smartboard and they can watch or listen to the chapter,” Carlson said. “You have the reading component, but you’re also building a sense of community throughout the school.”

Roth agreed.

“We’ve had a lot of neat people involved,” Roth said.

And Roth knows there are even more students who could benefit from the group reading activity. The school will look at doing a deeper implementation of the program that would include more English as a Second Language students in future projects, and school staff will be evaluating parent and student surveys to help gauge interest in trying the exercise again in the coming years.

The Tuesday family engagement event at the school brought together about 100 parents, students and teachers to mark the conclusion of the program for 2019. Roth spoke to the group and families gathered around tables to discuss the book itself. More books were given away.

It also included the adoption by one family of the school pet hamster, named Humphrey L.B. Williams in honor of the fictional character and the school itself, who has been visiting different classrooms during the semester.

Taysha Wantoch was in attendance at the event with her daughter, Tayla. She said they both enjoyed participating in the program.

“We read every single night. She has a problem with speech, and I think that reading has helped that, too,” Wantoch said.

Exercises like this can help boost student aptitude in literacy and learning, Roth said. The recent 2019 report card for the Mitchell School District, a collection of statistics on all district schools, indicates that third-graders in the district are 52 percent proficient in Reading and English Language Arts skills compared to 48 percent for the state average, fourth-graders are 62 percent proficient compared to a 49 percent for the state and fifth-graders are 63 percent proficient compared to 53 percent for the state.

Roth said they are always striving to improve those scores, and a group reading effort like the One School, One Book program can only help give students a leg up. And that can only serve them well in the future.

“That’s pretty typical, and that’s a positive thing. We want to keep the trend line moving upward and forward. It’s getting the kids what they need. We’re all a village, trying to make this happen,” Roth said. “Reading for 20 to 30 minutes a night is going to have an impact on the future of our kiddos.”