The school district hopes to expand the literacy initiative to all eighth-graders.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Before this year, Justin Johnson and most of his classmates at East Middle School had never heard of the Youngstown State University English Festival.
Let alone attend one.
"I didn't even know what it was when my teacher started talking about it," said Johnson, 15, an eighth-grader.
Over the past several years, while the annual reading and writing festival on the YSU campus has attracted thousands of pupils from throughout the Youngstown region, East Middle School has sent no more than a handful.
That changes this year.
What's planned: Through a special literacy initiative, 24 East pupils will attend the festival Friday, one of the largest contingents of pupils from a single city school to participate in the event in recent years.
The initiative aims to sharpen eighth-graders' reading skills as they enter high school, instill a love for reading, expose them to academic challenges like the English Festival and, ultimately, boost the school district's 54 percent graduation rate.
"The big issue is that so many of our kids are reading below grade level," said Kathleen O'Connell Sauline, the district's supervisor of libraries and media.
"Just to get them reading, get them exposed to literature, get them thinking that reading is something that is good, that's our goal."
To attend the English Festival, pupils must read seven books, mostly young adult novels. The three-day festival, started in 1979, attracts 1,000 pupils a day and features lectures by authors, writing workshops and contests. This year's event begins Wednesday.
The East literacy program focuses on eighth-graders in Lisa Perry's second-period English class.
Effort: Perry and Sauline have spent one week a month this school year introducing, reading and discussing the books with the pupils, qualifying them for the festival.
"They've taken reading a little more seriously," Perry said. "I think they feel special because they are participating in something academic that they normally wouldn't."
The program will be offered to the same pupils when they leave East and advance to the ninth grade next year, with Sauline again leading the group. Sauline said continuity is important.
"We lose so many kids in ninth grade in terms of either falling behind or dropping out altogether," she said.
The school district hopes to expand the program to all of East's approximately 150 eighth-graders next year and to all 750 eighth-graders in the school system in the following years, she said.
Wider focus: Dr. Gary Salvner, English Festival co-chairman, said the festival has been trying to get more Youngstown and Warren pupils to attend and to rebut the impression that the festival is for honor students only.
He said he supports the initiative at East, or any effort to get more children reading.
"If that's what's happening, then boy, we're just delighted," he said.
The pupils seems equally delighted by the program.
Denise Ward, 15, one of Perry's eighth-graders, said her favorite book is "Skellig" by David Almond.
"There's this boy who moves into this house, and he finds this man in the garage," Ward said, explaining that the man turns out to be an angel.
Reading "Skellig" and the other English Festival books has made her even more interested in reading: "It opens your mind to a lot of different things."
Ariel Pettiford said her favorite book is "Make Lemonade" by Virginia Euwer Wolff.
"It's about how to deal with problems in life and that you can do things you didn't think you could," said the 13-year-old eighth-grader.
Her eyes brighten and voice rises as she retells the story. "I don't usually read these kinds of books," she added.
A collection of poems called "I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You" is Melodie Mullins' favorite.
"I just really liked reading the poetry," said Mullins, 14.
Hearing the pupils talk about the books is music to Sauline's and Perry's ears.
"It just goes 100 percent to show that it's not about the inability of these kids," Sauline said. "The issue is that they haven't been exposed to this opportunity of the English Festival. They're perfectly capable."