Superintendents Who Model Family Literacy

BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, February 2017

Steve Anderson, superintendent of Lake Hamilton School District in Pearcy, Ark., reads aloud from The World According to Humphrey as part of the One District, One Book program. (Photo by Brian Bridges)

Steve Anderson sat down one fall day in 2015 for an intimate story time with 600 kindergartners and 1st graders, the junior high school cheerleading team and a giant hamster in a football jersey. And that was only the beginning.

Anderson, leader of the 4,400-student Lake Hamilton School District in Pearcy, Ark., had entered onto a path that would have every kindergartner through 5th grader and their families reading the same book, a chapter a night, for two weeks. It would also make him the town’s chief cheerleader for family literacy.

Besides his live session with the school district’s youngest children, the superintendent starred in a videotape of himself reading the first chapter of the chosen book, The World According to Humphrey, the tale of a big-hearted classroom hamster. The video was played on closed-circuit TVs in elementary schools across the district and posted on the district’s website.

The district’s kickoff of the national program, One District, One Book (, and the superintendent’s embrace of it, drew television coverage and community support and shined a light on the importance of reading to children.

“We started getting pictures sent in by parents on Facebook, at home with their children reading about Humphrey, and that was really neat,” Anderson says. “We had not only mom and dad reading, we had aunts, uncles and grandparents.”

The program promotes community literacy by creating a common template for family reading time. But it also gives superintendents a personal opportunity to model family literacy across their community.

Self-Image Booster
Jose Parra, superintendent of the 35,000-student Irving Independent School District in Texas, says he worked with his director of digital media and learning resources, Patricia Alvarado, to put the program together in his district in fall 2015. He says his personal involvement in reading the first chapter of the chosen book on video and sending it around the district has impacted not only families, but his own image as an educator.

Parra, who visits schools daily, says many children have greeted him with, “You’re the man with the books.” And he’s delighted by that reputation.
Superintendent David Pennington of Ponca City, Okla., appears on a YouTube video reading the first chapter of The Mouse and the Motorcycle, the district’s selection last fall in the One Book, One District program. (Image courtesy of Ponca City Public Schools)

“If I can connect them to an experience they can take with them for the rest of their lives and enjoy, then mission accomplished,” he says. “Even if I’m not doing the direct work, even if I’m not teaching reading, even if I’m not in the classroom teaching English language arts, I think the visibility and the presence aspect means a lot to students.”

The direct participation of superintendents tends to help things grow, particularly when schools are looking to extend learning into the community. In Irving, franchises such as Kroger’s and McDonald’s joined in the family literacy drive, putting posters in their stores and on McDonald’s marquees.

“What we found was that people really wanted to help,” Parra says. “They just needed to know what to do.”

Revving Up Interest
In the 5,100-student Ponca City Public Schools in northern Oklahoma, Superintendent David Pennington kicks off the literacy program in the usual manner, with assemblies and a video of him reading the first chapter of the chosen book. But he then unleashes the creativity of the district’s schools to take things further.

This year’s chosen title was Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and several schools took their children outside to watch as teachers and other staff members drove motorcycles around the parking lot to get the children fired up. One school had a parade of 15 motorcycles.

For Pennington, a past president of AASA, the opportunity as a superintendent to reach beyond the school door and into the community to encourage reading is a gift. “Any time you can sit down with the family and turn the TV off for a few minutes and gather your kids up and read to them or have them read to you, that’s a positive,” he says.

Parra agrees, saying, “If students are connecting me to books, then I’m representing reading and literacy and enjoyment and learning. I don’t think I could ask for more than that.”

Paul Riede is a journalism instructor at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y. E-mail: