On a narrow, dead-end street off San Vicente Boulevard, the sliding doors on the Toyota Sienna van click shut below a darkened sky. Seat belts swing across hips and shoulders.
Here, in this quiet, residential pocket of Santa Monica, the operation begins.
Diana Oliver, Roosevelt Elementary School’s PTA treasurer, is at the wheel. School parent Lindsay Newlove, who is in charge of a carefully constructed list, calls out the first name and address from the back. Another parent, Marika Spielman, sits in the middle row and scans homes for visible digits. And principal Natalie Burton rides shotgun, a pompom and a plastic hand-shaped noisemaker resting in her lap.
This will not be an ordinary night.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
The van arrives at its first destination, a home on Georgina Avenue. Burton and crew glide up the steps, pass through an entry gate and surround the front door.
Donning jeans, a Roosevelt zip-up jacket and a matching blue hat, the principal knocks. No answer. She tries again, a little more forceful this time. Seconds later, the door peels open.
“Anybody reading in here?” Burton shouts.
The quartet is welcomed into a main hallway that leads to a living room, where fourth-grader Nazaneen Ghorbanali reclines in a small pink chair with a copy of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
The adults bombard her with cheers, celebrating her commitment to reading. The girl briefly closes her book and poses for a photo. She appears stunned by the spectacle.
Ghorbanali is just the first of 10 homes that Burton and company will visit on Roosevelt Elementary School’s third and final installment of its annual Turn Off TV Tuesdays, an evening event that aims to develop students’ reading habits outside of the classroom.
Groups of teachers and parents pop in for quick visits at children’s homes to catch them in the act of reading and reward them with wristbands that they can redeem for free books at school.
Although the program exists elsewhere, it seems to have taken a particularly strong hold in the Roosevelt community. In fact, Turn Off TV Tuesdays were already in place when Burton arrived at the Montana Avenue campus about eight years ago.
“I was at a principals’ meeting today, and they all looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “They’re like, ‘You’re what? You’re going to students’ houses?’ It’s very unique to Roosevelt. … It builds a real sense of community, and it means so much to the kids. It’s something they’ll always remember.”
TO PROFICIENCY AND BEYOND
For some of the students at Burton’s school, Turn Off TV Tuesdays have the potential to be transformative.
Roosevelt has scored well on state measurements for English and language arts, 87 percent of its pupils ranking as proficient or advanced in 2012-13 – significantly better than the same figures for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (74 percent) and the state as a whole (55 percent).
At Roosevelt, which was one of four SMMUSD elementary schools to receive a California Distinguished School honor last year, more than 90 percent of fourth- and fifth-grade students were proficient or advanced in language arts on standardized tests in 2013.
But, according to the annual School Accountability Report Card, there’s room for improvement. Although 87.4 percent of Roosevelt students were deemed proficient or above in English skills in 2012-13, the school did not meet its progress goal of 89.2 percent.
A program like Turn Off TV Tuesdays could help in making up the difference. It’s part of a month’s worth of special activities during the school’s annual Read-A-Thon, when children keep reading logs and help their families raise money for the campus.
Students in the lower grades recently attended a pajama party, where teachers read them stories, and last week Roosevelt’s entire student body performed a flash mob in which the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” were rewritten to promote reading.
When asked if he likes to read, fourth-grader Hollen Song practically bristles at the question.
“Of course,” the future history buff says, fiddling with a copy of “DDR Posters: The Art of East German Propaganda” while sitting on his couch.
Song acknowledges that he likes to watch TV sometimes but adds that he understands the importance of reading skills, too.
“We’re in the 21st century,” he says. “If we only let kids watch televised commercials, think of what our generation — our generation wouldn’t be smart, right?”
Having the school principal in your house isn’t exactly a common experience for Roosevelt students, so it comes as little surprise when Maddie and Willa Hughes bottle up on a question about their favorite TV shows.
“I have a lot,” Maddie allows.
On this particular evening, the sisters eschew Disney sitcoms “Lab Rats” and “Good Luck Charlie” for more educational pastimes. Maddie, a fifth-grader, holds up her copy of “Finally,” a contemporary children’s novel. Willa, a first-grader, shows off Cynthia Rylant’s “Mr. Putter & Tabby Bake the Cake.”
Burton and her accomplices pepper the girls with hoots and hollers, leave a few compliments and say their goodbyes. They have more children to see.
They hop back into the van and continue on to the next home, where Burton is expecting to see second-grader Jackson Colby.
The durability of the event seems to strike her when she comes across his older brother, Roosevelt alumnus Cooper Colby, during the visit. Cooper is now a seventh-grade student at Lincoln Middle School.
Time passes. Pages turn. Plots thicken.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Fiona Schweig isn’t clutching a book when Burton enters her home. And yet, she’s reading.
The first-grader is using a Kindle to scroll through a selection from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.
“I like it because it’s funny,” Schweig says of her digital book. “And there are funny drawings. They have big noses, and there are even some kindergartners who have beards and mustaches.”
For Burton, it’s a clear example of technology’s powerful influence — and something she hasn’t seen on nighttime reading check-in before.
Schweig’s mother, Jennifer Cowan, says the electronic reader makes it easy to provide a constant stream of options for a girl who loves to read. They frequently rent electronic books through the Santa Monica Public Library.
“She goes through them so quickly,” Cowan says.
Back on the road, Burton notes that technology can be extremely beneficial in educational settings. She says many Roosevelt students use Lexia, a computer-based learning tool, although she knows many of them also use screens for entertainment.
“I’m not always there at night to see what they’re doing,” the principal says, “but I know they’re psyched about reading.”
Schweig provides a slice of evidence.
“It helps you learn,” she says. “It helps your brain. It makes you smarter.”
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.