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."