Last year, as Chris Hales was pushing Andersen Junior High school in Chandler to read a combined 1 billion words, one student disclosed that he was having, uh, problems at home.
The student got grounded, Hales said, for not performing chores - because he was spending most of his time reading.
"That was a new thing," said Hales, media specialist at Andersen. "I hadn't heard that before."
Such domestic disturbances did not deter Andersen from achieving the 1 billion goal, which it did on the last day of school. With classes resumed at Andersen and other Chandler schools, Hales is encouraging his students to outdo themselves this school year by reading 1.5 billion words.
"With our kids, it has become a big deal," Hales said. "We're encouraging all of the kids to read a book a week. If they can do that, we'll hit 1.5 billion."
Seth Lansky, a local representative for Follett, a company that furnishes library and research materials to schools, said Andersen was the only school in Arizona to achieve 1 billion words last year. A school in Colorado matched the feat, he said.
"I've been tracking it for about seven years, and very few schools around the country can grow as much in its reading as Andersen has," Lansky said. "The big picture is that kids are still reading, even with all the entertainment options available to them these days. Chris and the staff at Andersen deserve a lot of credit for fostering a love of reading."
The secret to the success, Hales said, is providing junior-high students with books they want to read. That means more copies of such series as "Twilight," "Harry Potter" and "Diary Of A Wimpy Kid."
A regular part of the daily school announcements is "Hales' Hotties," in which two students offer book recommendations.
The classics are not pushed to the back shelf, Hales said, but he cited a recent three-year study by the University of Tennessee that kids' reading enthusiasm and aptitude improved from exposure to books - any books.
"A lot of problems kids have with a public library is that they write down the titles they want, then go and find half of them not on the shelf," Hales said. "We pride ourselves on having more copies of the books kids want. That means five or six copies of a lot of books, 15 or more of the really popular ones."
After that, the students' competitive juices take over.
Near the information desk at the Andersen library sits a computer monitor that serves as a word-count scoreboard, ranking the top students by quarter. Teachers have also posted their personal word counts, increasing the motivation.
"It's neat to come in here and tell friends to look at your name on the screen," said Vanessa Casillas, an eighth-grader who read 5 million words last year and completed 20 books during summer vacation.
Said Austin Jones, an eighth-grader who reached the 5-million mark a year ago, "Our reading teacher will tell that class, ‘We have a number of accomplished readers ... led by Austin.' That's really cool."
After students complete a book, they must pass a 10-question quiz provided by Accelerated Reader, a software that also calculates the word count for each title. Students who fail the test do not receive word-count credit for the book.
Andersen students correctly answered more than 80 percent of the test questions last year, Hales said.
"The tests are pretty hard, and the questions are always getting changed up," Hales said. "In the last couple of years, as movies have come out based on the books, they have changed the questions to reflect that. Ask any kid here: You don't read the book, you won't pass the test."
The competition might soon extend beyond Andersen's walls. Bogle Junior High School in Chandler, which read a combined 925 million words last year, has issued a word-count challenge. "We know we have to up the ante," Hales said.
Most important, the 1-billion-word challenge has helped inspire reading habits that, for some students, will endure long after they have graduated junior high.
"Yeah, I've really grown to love it," said eighth-grader Julia Vollaro, who read 3 million words last year. "I'm going to be an old lady sitting in a rocking chair, always reading a book."