Published on Thu., March 7, 2024

On Wednesday, Feb. 28, students at five LCS schools set out to read a combined total of 439,000 minutes by Friday, March 8. It’s a big goal, but the 1,670 participating readers are up to the challenge. With two days left to go, they’ve already racked up impressive numbers, logging minutes during class reading sessions, after school, before bed, and whenever they can steal a moment between the day’s activities.

LCS Virtual Academy (LVA) and R. S. Payne, Paul Munro, Bedford Hills, and Perrymont elementary schools are joining more than 5,000 schools participating in the national Read-A-Thon challenge. The goal of the reading frenzy is twofold: to get kids reading and to raise money for their schools’ Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs), which play a vital role in the schools by supporting teachers and staff members, volunteering at school functions, providing school supplies and snacks, organizing enrichment activities and family engagement events, and more. 

Many students are Read-A-Thon veterans—last year, students at R. S. Payne, Paul Munro, Bedford Hills, and T. C. Miller elementary schools racked up a combined 512,109 minutes and raised $44,110. For students at Perrymont and LVA, it’s a totally new experience. 

Student holding book and stuff animal
Two students eating ice treats outside
Student smiling with ice cream treat
R. S. Payne, Paul Munro, Bedford Hills, and T. C. Miller elementary schools celebrated with prizes, sweet treats, and sunshine after finishing their Read-A-Thons in 2023.

But they didn’t have to figure it out alone. They had help from their fellow schools who’d pulled off successful Read-A-Thons before, like Bedford Hills, the first LCS school to host one in 2021 as a pandemic-friendly alternative to their beloved annual carnival fundraiser. 

“We spent time learning from other PTOs before we joined in—what their Read-A-Thons have looked like, how they celebrate afterward, which local sponsors could provide prizes for students, how to communicate about the fundraiser with families, and more,” said Perrymont PTO parent representative Morgan Hall. “Having something like a reading challenge to unite schools for a common goal is really great.”

Excited students cheering during school assembly
School administrator wearing school mascot costume pointing to people on stage holding signs spelling out "READ"
College athletes handing stickers to elementary students
Perrymont kicked off their Read-A-Thon on Feb. 28 with an assembly with special guests from the University of Lynchburg.
New Connections

Thanks to a budding initiative called PTO Connect, parents across the division have been sharing knowledge, resources, and connections through monthly Zoom meetings and in-person collaboration. Started in 2020 by LCS parent and SHARE Greater Lynchburg Director Megan Huffman, the program has opened the door for collaboration between schools. 

During her time as president of the Bedford Hills PTO, Huffman dreamed up PTO Connect as a way to keep momentum for the PTO going in the midst of the pandemic. Nearly four years after its inception, it’s still going strong.

“PTO Connect is all about information and resource sharing, showing up for each other, and encouraging each other. This way, no school has to reinvent the wheel,” Huffman said. “My heartbeat is to see more interconnectivity across the division. By working together, we can build capacity and spark creativity across LCS.”

Megan Huffman
Huffman, who has worked extensively with the Bedford Hills and R. S. Payne PTOs, founded PTO Connect as a way to empower schools through collaboration.

Indeed, last spring’s Read-A-Thons owed much of their success to PTO Connect. Participating schools coordinated their efforts for maximum effectiveness, sharing resources, ideas, and sponsors. 

“Rather than leaving schools to start from square one with limited contacts or knowledge of best practices, we used PTO Connect as a way to help each other navigate the Read-A-Thon,” Huffman said.

The PTOs were eager to jump into this spring’s fundraiser, with more schools participating than ever before. This year, schools made a point to host their Read-A-Thons simultaneously during Read Across America Week, coordinate spirit days, and help each other get sponsorships. Foster Fuels Foundation, Appalachian Orthodontics, Sugar Rush Candy Shop, Moore & Giles, Chick-fil-A, One Community One Voice, Freedom First Credit Union, the Lynchburg Hillcats, and the LCS Education Foundation rallied around the schools with monetary and in-kind support.

“The Read-A-Thons are even more collaborative this year. It’s been eye-opening for me to learn from what other schools are doing,” said Suzanna Davies, who’s the president of the R. S. Payne PTO and the vice president of the Paul Munro PTO.

Beyond the Books

Read-A-Thon is the biggest fundraiser of the year for participating schools, but it’s not the only success story to come out of PTO Connect. Schools strengthen each other’s initiatives all year round, helping each other host back-to-school block parties, STEM nights, creative parent volunteer opportunities, and more.

For R. S. Payne, division-level collaboration was key in launching a new school-wide service learning initiative this year. Started by school principal Lori McVicar, the program is boosting student development through community service projects. Thanks to relationships formed through PTO Connect, McVicar and PTO leaders launched the program in partnership with a robust network of community organizations.

Camp Kum-Ba-Yah volunteer speaking with students outside
Virginia Cooperative Extension volunteer with students in cafeteria
Thanks to relationships formed through PTO Connect, partner organizations visit R. S. Payne monthly, giving students opportunities to serve their local community. Here, students learn about wildlife conservation with Camp Kum-Ba-Yah and nutrition with the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

This past fall, students formed groups based on topics they’re passionate about, like environmental conservation, public safety, the arts, and hunger. Each month, community partners like the Camp Kum-Ba-Yah Nature Center, Lynchburg Police Department (LPD), Academy Center of the Arts, and Virginia Cooperative Extension have been visiting student groups at school to share about their work and facilitate collaborative service projects. Many groups will even get opportunities to go on service field trips with community partners.

“When kids serve others, it makes them feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. That changes their perspective,” McVicar said. 

Park View Community Mission volunteer packing meals with students
K9 Police officer with student petting dog
Student painting mural on wall
R. S. Payne students have packed meals for underprivileged families with Park View Community Mission, learned how police dogs keep people safe with the LPD, painted a mural with the Academy Center of the Arts, and more.

McVicar credits Huffman and LCS Family and Community Engagement Coordinator Whitney Boyd for helping her get the program off the ground. Since its launch, R. S. Payne parents and teachers alike have worked together to make it a success month after month. 

“I believe it takes a village to help our schools thrive. The more we can partner together, link arms, and do life together, the more we’re being a model for our kids. They can see us coming together and making them a priority,” McVicar said.

Spreading the Love

At the same time R. S. Payne was launching the service learning program, Dearington Elementary School was making big moves. The school’s PTO had been dormant for years, but this fall, a group of passionate parents started it back up again. Led by their new principal Jason Giambrone, they kicked the school year off with a registration event for families. 

“We need great relationships with parents—we can’t do it without them. At the end of the day, it’s a partnership,” Giambrone said. “And when kids see their parents invested in their education, it makes a difference.”

Since August, they’ve supported teachers, launched fundraisers, planned end-of-year celebrations to recognize students’ hard work, multiplied parental engagement, made Dearington spiritwear, and more. All the while, they’ve received advice and support through PTO Connect from parents who’d done this before.

Jason Giambrone next to "DESI" wall decoration
Giambrone credits Dearington parents for rallying to revive the PTO.

“The group has been extremely valuable to us. They’ve helped us establish bylaws, fundraise, and understand what it means to support teachers as a PTO,” said Dearington PTO President Marques Bush. 

Schools with well-established PTOs, like Bedford Hills and Paul Munro, have wisdom to share with schools that are newer to the game, like Dearington, Perrymont, and LVA. Likewise, bigger schools are able to uplift smaller ones, like T. C. Miller. 

“Through PTO Connect, we get to tap into the resources of larger schools with more parental involvement than ours,” said T. C. Miller PTO President Abby Skinner. “When schools coordinate efforts, we can ensure better outcomes for sponsors, more participation from parents, and more fundraising for each school.”

Student enjoying ice treats in front of food truck
Hillcats mascot Southpaw with students at school read-a-thon event
PTO Connect members connect each other with sponsors for events and share ideas for innovative ways to support their schools.

Many parents see PTO Connect as an important way to promote equity across the division. Not all parents have the time or resources to support the schools in the same ways, Huffman recognizes, so it’s important that schools support each other wherever possible.

“Parents are working multiple jobs. Not all of them can make it to PTO meetings. That’s why it’s so important that people across the division are leaning in and supporting the schools,” Huffman said. “Every kid deserves community support and a level playing field.”

Parents as Partners

No matter the size of the school or capacity of the PTO, all PTO Connect participants can agree on one thing: Parents and guardians are essential partners in their children’s education.

“When kids see their parents getting involved in their education, they take ownership of their own learning. Parent engagement is a mutually beneficial relationship,” said Bedford Hills PTO President Amanda Rumore. “It helps the school be the best it can be, and kids can see how important it is to love your school and appreciate your teachers. It improves their learning.”

Though not every parent or guardian has the time to serve on a PTO board, any level of participation helps, whether it’s donating treats for teacher appreciation week or volunteering at a family engagement event. PTO Connect members strive to provide a wide variety of accessible opportunities for parents to get involved.

“There are many different ways to dial into the unique strengths of parents. Everyone has something special to contribute,” Huffman said. “Not every parent has to bring meals for teachers or put up bulletin boards. Instead, could a parent visit their child’s school and share about their career?”

Student smiling holding violin with parent in background
Parent involvement in the schools is tied to better outcomes for their children. 

For parents like Dearington PTO President Marques Bush, supporting the schools plays an important role in his relationship with his kids. He aims to encourage other dads to get involved in their children’s education.

“It comes from letting my kids know I love them, I see them, and I’m trying to meet them where they are,” Bush said. “There aren’t many dads engaged in PTO efforts, but we need to be involved where our kids are. My goal is to set an example for other men.”

Parent participation doesn’t just benefit students and teachers. Many parents describe their own involvement as personally edifying. Through PTO initiatives, they form valuable friendships, develop relationships with teachers and staff members, and engage meaningfully with their local communities.

“Because of the relationships I’ve built with the people at my son’s school, I trust that he’s in good hands and that they have his best interest in mind,” said Perrymont PTO parent representative Morgan Hall. “If I ever have a concern, I know I can reach out, and we can talk about it. That good rapport and relationship are already there, and that means a lot.”

The Future of PTOs in Our Schools

As this spring’s Read-A-Thon wraps up, parents and guardians are engaging with their kids’ learning in new ways. The reading challenge provides them with accessible opportunities to support their child’s school while helping them develop vital literacy skills. By just reading a bedtime story, helping their child log reading minutes, donating to the fundraiser, or sharing the fundraiser with friends and family members, parents can support their children from the comfort of their homes. 

Many Read-A-Thon participants don’t even need their parents’ help staying motivated. The challenge itself is enough to keep tearing through books. And the literacy benefits they reap last far longer than the prizes they win. Erin Friedman, whose son won the school award for the most minutes read during last year’s Read-A-Thon at R. S. Payne, saw this firsthand. 

Mother with son outside school building holding B.I.K.E. award
Friedman’s son won a bike for reading more than any of his classmates at R. S. Payne’s Read-A-Thon last year.

“There was not a moment where he wasn’t reading. He wasn’t motivated by the prizes as much—it was about the reading,” Friedman said. “He read so much that he ran out of his favorite authors and series, and he ended up exploring so many different genres he wouldn’t have otherwise.”

It’s already clear this year’s reading challenge has been a success. It’s another testament to the incredible things that can be done when parents across the city unite to support students. If schools decide to repeat the reading challenge next year, they’ll approach it with renewed confidence and wisdom to share with other schools.

Each year the schools work together, their efforts mature, growing stronger and more effective with every endeavor. PTO Connect itself will continue to evolve to better meet the needs of students, families, and teachers all over Lynchburg.

“We’ve already accomplished so much together. It’s evidence that we can do amazing things when we come together for our city’s kids,” Huffman said. “PTO Connect is very organic right now, and there are so many opportunities to grow. I’m excited for the increased collaboration, creativity, and connectivity that’s sure to come."

Learn more and support the schools’ Read-A-Thons here.

Three students at table reading
Smiling student with a book
With two days left of their reading challenge, R. S. Payne students dig into books of their choice.
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