Harding University Partnership School Principal Veronica Binkley holds a medal for the Millionaire Challenge, in which students try to read as many words as they can. Four students hit the 1 million word mark by early April.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo )

The youngest millionaires in town are students at Harding University Partnership School: voracious readers who are competing to read as many words as they can each month.

Four of them have already hit 1 million words this school year and become official members of the Millionaire Club: Emily Villafana is a multi-millionaire by now, and Charlotte Richardson, David Marin and Samuel Blakely are all millionaires.

Many more students have been awarded milestone medals by Principal Veronica Binkley, the reading program’s creator and biggest fan.

Students get credit for words by finishing Accelerated Reader books and passing the computer tests about the books, with the numbers tallied and checked by Binkley.

She personally takes the top two readers each month to Chaucer’s Bookstore, where the staff treats the kids like superstars, she said.

It has created a culture of competitive reading in which the students are eager to share how many words they’ve read, and wear their medals with honor, she said.

After being hired as Harding’s principal in 2014, Binkley looked at assessment data and saw “a clear gap in making this program be the best that it can be,” she said.

Since then, she and the staff have shepherded the school community toward a renewed focus on reading, and the change is palpable, she said.

“In order for us to get there they need strong foundational skills and to love reading, and we’re there for the most part,” she said.

Students in second grade teacher Dawn Penkala’s class take computer tests to get credit for books they’ve read at Harding University Partnership School.

Students in second grade teacher Dawn Penkala’s class take computer tests to get credit for books they’ve read at Harding University Partnership School. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo )

“I mean, we still have a long way to go. You can see when kids are coming into sixth grade at a third-grade level and we get them up to fifth grade in six months — that’s a tremendous amount of growth, but they’re still not at grade level. We need to continue what we’re doing because what we’re doing is working.”

The reading challenge for students is the incentive piece, while teachers create personal goals for each child. The school also purchased a leveled reading library at the beginning of the year.

“That is enabling all teachers to target individualized instruction for all students, and that’s the silver bullet right there, and to have the books that are at (students’) level that they can access and then be challenged by,” Binkley said.

The assessment data shows promise, with students making good progress in hitting – and exceeding – grade level for their reading.

Even behavior has improved, as the students feel more successful and confident, she added.

“I’m cautiously optimistic but feeling pretty good what’s happening,” she said.

“I also know that every child can leave kindergarten reading because I’ve taught in all demographics, and English learners or not, all kids in kindergarten are English language learners. They’re all equally capable in decoding words and memorizing sight words and putting the whole thing together.”

The school is also holding regular family literacy nights and gives parents resources who want to help their students at home. 

“It’s a tough population you know, when you’re operating with a lot of high poverty and a lot of monolingual Spanish-speaking parents who want to help but are unsure how,” Binkley said.

Binkley said classroom visits are her happy place, and during a recent visit to first-grade teacher Jamie Stratford’s class, a group of students was illustrating their class book demonstrating their opinion writing.

Harding University Partnership School’s Millionaire Challenge invites students to read books to reach 1 million words, and beyond.

Harding University Partnership School’s Millionaire Challenge invites students to read books to reach 1 million words, and beyond. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo )

They were eager to share their reading levels and their favorite books: Pete the Cat books and the Pigeon Presents! Series by Mo Willems.

A few parents shared their experiences this year with the Millionaire Challenge and the school-wide emphasis on reading.

Pamela Ellgen, who has two children at Harding, said “reading had always been a drudge” for her third-grade son, Brad, but he has already read more than 200,000 words this year.

“He is finding books that are exactly at his level – which has increased dramatically since the start of the school year. He feels empowered and rewarded. He even wore his Millionaire Challenge medal to the park to show the other kids. We couldn’t be more grateful,” she said in an email.  

Teachers care about getting students to read often, understand what they’re reading and fall in love with reading, Ellgen said. The family started at Harding this year, after moving from the Bay Area.

She forwarded some quotes from Brad, 9, who said he likes the Millionaire Challenge “because you can get really cool prizes for something you really like to do!”

His whole class loves to read and his teacher, Kimberly Lynch, finds them really cool books.

“The class decides which books we read, so everyone is interested in the topic,” Brad said. “The other teacher picked such bad ideas, like ‘let’s read about power lines.’ First line, and I’m done.”

His current favorite is the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis, and Brad has read all 15, Ellgen said.

Erin Blakely’s son, Sam, is in Reanna Mason’s fourth-grade class, which Binkley noted was going “gangbusters” with their reading.

“Though he started the year as a reluctant reader, now his favorite part of school is the Accelerated Reader time every morning when he gets to lounge in a bungee cord chair and read next to his friends,” Blakely said.

“He is very proud of the medals he received and now a trophy for becoming a millionaire. I think one of his favorite days ever was the day he got to go to Chaucer’s with the principal.”

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.