Beye principal offers to shave off hair if students reach 'million minutes' reading goal

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Beye Elementary School Principal Jonathan Ellwanger has shown plenty of school spirit in his 10 years heading (so to speak) the northeast Oak Park school.

All of it, he says, has been in support of the students. Four years ago he spent a night on the roof of the school, having lost a friendly wager with his students. He promised to log a minute on the roof for every good behavior slip they earned during the school year. The students tallied 19 hours' worth of good behavior.

This year, Ellwanger put his hair on the line.

Reading has been a special focus at the school this school year. Among the activities planned was a goal of one million minutes during the school year. That doesn't include their regular classroom reading assignments, but reading on their own, either at home or during lunchtime.

Ellwanger, who was a music teacher at Beye before becoming principal, made another friendly wager with his students — he would shave his head during a school assembly if they reached the million-minute goal. It was a reachable goal, he said something attainable for students but requiring effort. The students have until the end of the school year in May to reach the goal, but they look to be on track or ahead (so to speak).

As of Monday, the students have read for more than 840,000 minutes since last September. Kids and their parents keep track of minutes read at school and home, which their homeroom teacher records every Monday. Ellwanger said the students appear likely to reach the mark sometime after spring break. He adds that the real goal is to get them excited about reading on their own.

"We will have an assembly," Ellwanger said. "Ms. [Jane] Sheth, our language arts teacher, will do the duty. She's assured me that she knows how to handle the clippers."

The million-minute reading challenge highlights a year of literacy-focused activities. Basketball players from Oak Park and River Forest High School are coming to the school next Wednesday to talk about the importance of reading at the high school. They'll also shoot some hoops with Beye students. Teachers have talked with students about using technology to read what they'd like.

"Everybody in our school setting loves seeing the enthusiasm and excitement in our kids," Ellwanger said, adding that his wager is part of that effort. "The main message is that this isn't about doing something crazy. It's about supporting our students. It's letting them know that my enthusiasm for reading is clear. I'm willing to support you any way I can."

A "meter" is up in the school's commons where kids and adults can see how the reading challenge is going.

"The students remind me every day that the red is inching ever so higher to the top," Ellwanger said.

It's been a long, long while since he sported the "Mr. Clean" look. Not since he was in grammar school himself, Ellwanger recalls. The kids have gotten a particular kick out of this latest wager. Some remember him going up on the roof. Some of the youngest, however, were a little worried.

"They were concerned that I might be losing my hair during the winter, but it looks like we'll be past that period. I told them, if you're that concerned, you can record your minutes, just don't turn them in," he said, laughing.

Ellwanger's wife and daughter have been ribbing him, too.

"My daughter is the most skeptical. She's not sure I'm going to make a good-looking bald guy," he said. "My wife is concerned it will grow back all gray, but it's kind of all gray now. As long as it all grows back, I'll be fine."


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Beye Parent from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 16th, 2013 9:58 AM

Activities to celebrate reading included "one school-one book" with much school wide discussion of the selected text. There were links to March Madness incl. student recognition, games, and the OPRF Bball team visiting to reinforce the importance of reading. The shaving was but one part. A gimmick? Perhaps, but when you have 25% of the school population without home exposure to the intellectual elitism seen in some comments, every effort is appreciated, we appreciate Mr. E's awesome efforts!


Posted: April 15th, 2013 9:42 AM

I am a fifth grader at Beye School, about to go to sixth. I think this is one of the many great things Mr. E does to make me not want to leave Beye School!

al rich  

Posted: April 12th, 2013 11:58 PM

Repeating Longfellow principal Mary Costa's actions in the 80s. She turned children on to books - and independent thought and exploration and nurtured the brightest minds of a generation. These children, + my own, work for NASA, state Senators, international film stars - they thrive because they love reading - because they discovered every hero and possibility in a book. (If he can do the same - HOORAY!)

OhGoodGrief from Forest Park  

Posted: April 12th, 2013 10:33 PM

Come on guys..This is an amazing elementary school principal who has decided on an fun way to encourage reading. It's a challenge, it's fun and Mr. E got his head shaved. He sat a a roof a few years ago as I recall. When my child was at Beye he got to crack an egg over the head of his beloved 6th grade teacher for some now-forgotten challenge. As always, some OPers are over thinking this. Mr. E. rocks!

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: April 12th, 2013 6:05 PM

Mr. E usually does these types of things for all the right reasons. He was an inspiration to our kids when they went to Beye, first as a band director, then as principal.

Veteran parent of OP schools from Forest Park  

Posted: April 12th, 2013 6:03 PM

In my view, the principal shaving his head was the incentive -- not the reward. Given that incentive, the children read... probably much more than they would have otherwise. I have no doubt that many of those children discovered that they enjoyed reading more than they thought! The reality is that a lot of kids don't like/want to read, so if a fun incentive like this one is enough to give them a little push, I say go for it! Good for you, Mr. Ellwanger!! Good job, Beye students!!

AMom from Oak Park  

Posted: April 12th, 2013 5:51 PM

I think it's fantastic that Mr. Ellwanger enjoys what he does so much. It's refreshing to find an administrator that doesn't have to take things too seriously and still gets the job done. My guess is that the kids love him.

Speedway from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2013 1:31 PM

Kids have to be rewarded. The joy of reading is the reward. It opens up our world. Rewarding kids for everything is taking the easy way out.

OPRF Parent  

Posted: March 16th, 2013 8:38 AM

I don't love this idea either, a little too gimmicky for me. I don't get a correlation between reading and the principal shaving his head. I do know that kids have to be rewarded for everything anymore so I suppose this is an easy, good reward.

Subarumom from Oak Park  

Posted: March 15th, 2013 11:17 PM

As a parent, I see this as really admirable. What he's willing to do for the kids to bring a little fun into learning, feel connected to a whole school community, and encourage reading. It's admirable. I happen to have a kid who doesn't need motivation to read -- she's already a big reader. But this challenge made her read even more because she wanted her classroom to earn the most minutes each week. So it brought out her competitive instinct a bit - not such a bad thing.

OP Transplant  

Posted: March 15th, 2013 4:05 PM

I never liked these "humiliate the adult" rewards. Whether it's a teacher in a dunk tank, a shaved head, a pie in the face...whatever. I think it promotes a disrespect for authority and encourages kids to take pleasure in the misfortune of others.

Jocelyne from Oak Park  

Posted: March 15th, 2013 6:38 AM

Mr. Ellwanger really knows how to motivate children and to add extra fun into the mix. Kudos to to Beye Students, Mr. Ellwanger, Beye Faculty & Staff!

Speedway from Oak Park  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 2:48 PM

So if parents want to encourage their kids, they should shave off their hair too as a reward. I don't see to many bald parents around.


Posted: March 14th, 2013 7:20 AM

This guys got it figured out! what a great way to motivate young kids. Work hard towards a goal, achieve it, get rewarded. Same as the "real world"- the goals and rewards are different due to an obvious age difference but the concept is the same. Very cool way to introduce students to reading and the notion of working towards something. We need more dedicated and enthusiastic people like this in our schools- wish the other schools had principals like this one!

Speedway from Oak Park  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 1:36 PM

If the principal planned to shave his head anyway, maybe wanted a "no fuss" look, I agree there is no humiliation. Would parents of these children shave their heads in solidarity? Rather doubtful. In the real world do people offer to shave their heads as a form of encouragement? I personally think it's over the top when I would never shave my head as an encouragement to get a child to read. I think there are better ways.

Maria from Oak Park  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 1:00 PM

I'm pretty sure the kids are reading because they like to read AND because they like their principal. Their goal is not to humiliate - you get it, right?

Speedway from Oak Park   

Posted: March 13th, 2013 4:30 AM

Sorry, a teacher, a principal, whatever should not have to shave his head to get kids to read.

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