There are a lot of things associated with the words “high school football.” Three-a-days. Pep rallies. Weight rooms. The quarterback sneak.
Summer reading club isn’t usually one of them.
Coach Sam Pattillo, however, would beg to differ. He is the head football coach at Swain County High School, and every one of his players has been in a summer reading group for the last three years.
He’s not just going along with a program that someone else came up with, either. The reading was his idea, and he’s the one pushing it with his players.
“It’s building that relationship with our teachers and [the] expectation that academics is first, athletics is below that,” said Pattillo. He wears a lot of other hats at the small school, but he’s known first, at school and in the larger community, as the football coach, and a good one. The students respect him and that’s helped in getting them on board with the unorthodox program.
“Males tend to process things differently, and we tend not to take the time to read like we should,” said Pattillo. “We started it in order to put a focus on literacy and to establish some value for reading. It’s all before school starts, and basically a part of that too is to get them started thinking about school, being together as a team going through this process.”
In the summer before practices begin, the players are given books and Kindle e-readers to get a jump on the material.
The coaches read the books with the boys, and they get helmet stickers for doing well in the program, just as they would for making crucial plays or excelling in practice.
On the reading end of the program is Dawn Gilchrist-Young, the head of Swain High’s English department.
She’s in charge of the books, the post-reading questions players answer and the discussion groups they have after.
The success of the program, she said, is somewhat hard to gauge. One of the defining characteristics of a high school is that the population is different every year. So with new kids always moving in and out, pinning down how much good extra summer reading is doing is a bit tough.
But the message the program sends, she said, is a success in itself.
“Since football gives Swain County something to kind of hang its hat on, having the football team do a summer reading program tells the whole county about what we’re doing here,” said Gilchrist-Young.
The idea being that if Swain is a football county, it’s significant to have the football team saying it’s a reading county, too.
“What you’re saying is academics are important and it’s what will see you through.”
Both coach and teacher say they’ve seen a positive response from the players, even if some are reluctant at first. And, Pattillo points out, this is not what’s normally on the menu for high school football practice.
“It actually is a paradigm change, because it’s not all football,” he said.
“It’s a big deal to ask a kid who is not necessarily interested in taking AP [advanced placement] classes to do summer reading,” adds Gilchrist-Young.
By now, they’re accustomed to what’s coming in July. The second year of the program, the chosen book — Friday Night Lights — was requested by a few players who said they’d like to read it.
While the immediate goal of the program was to get books into the hands and minds of more students, the end game is a broader, more macro approach.
What’s the final goal, asks Gilchrist-Young?
“That all of our students go to Ivy League schools and then come back and commit themselves to the betterment of Swain County,” she said, smiling. “Or another ideal would be that they read to their children, love the tradition, have a kid on their lap at night, reading a book.”
That long game is an approach being taken by not just one teacher and one coach, but by the school system as a whole.
That’s where Steve Claxton comes in. As the community schools coordinator, one of the things in his charge is promoting reading in schools.
“We thought, ‘Well, how early can we start?’” said Claxton. The answer: “Well, when they’re born.”
The school system partnered with Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, where most Swain County families go to have their babies. Now, every Swain County child born in that hospital goes out into the world with a book.
The system is using the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program founded by the buxom country beauty to increase childhood literacy.
Through the program, the brand new babies leave the hospital with their own copy of children’s classic The Little Engine That Could, and they’re then mailed a book a month for the first four years of their life.
By the time they get to kindergarten, Swain County’s 2030 graduating class will all have a personal library that’s 60 books strong.
For kids who were born a little too early to catch that train from birth, the school system went into preschools around the county and offered the program to families.
This year, it cost a little more than they anticipated, around $8,000.
“We have 467 preschoolers in our county, and they [the program organizers] said to expect about 50 in the first year,” said Claxton. But they had 277 sign up. “We’re already halfway through our entire preschool population.”
They also bring high school students into preschool classes as readers, promoting literacy in students on both ends of the educational spectrum.
In addition to building libraries for preschoolers, the school system is giving parents the tools to know what to do with them.
They’ve produced two brochures — one for supermarkets and one for hiking trips — that teach parents how to make reading a part of both situations with their little ones. They’re also working with families who might not be able to read to their children, to foster early reading skills and help parents’ reading abilities, too.
“We have parents in this county who are illiterate. They can’t read to their kids. So we work with our siblings,” said Claxton. “They can take a book home that’s age appropriate for their siblings so they can read to them at night. That’s helping both kids.”
Most of these programs have only been going for a few years, but with the aggressive stance the schools are taking on reading, Claxton, Gilchrist-Young and Pattillo are hoping they’ll prove their value in the smarter more literate kids walking out the school’s doors. The programs are designed not only to get kids reading today, but to imbue them with a love of reading for years to come.