At first, the kids at Loomis Grammar School read because it was all they could do when their cancer-stricken principal challenged them to open more books.
And then something changed.
"The people who weren't that into reading are now really liking it," said Ashley Tarabetz, an eighth-grader who has become the talk of the hallways for reading 86 books since November.
In all, the 475 students at Loomis Grammar School have read 8,136 books since November. The tally is marked on the school's marquee, next to "Keep it going for Mr. Judd," the affable longtime principal at the school.
"Instead of food or gifts, he wanted kids to read," said the school's interim principal, Kari Hazen, who is filling in for Rick Judd during his medical leave.
Judd, 49, has undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments for tongue cancer. The tumor was too big to operate. Judd said doctors were surprised when he told them he had never smoked or chewed tobacco.
"I felt something was not right in my throat," Judd said. "It was like a tickle."
Judd said doctors are optimistic about his prognosis, but he won't know until next month whether he is cancer-free. Still, he hopes to return to Loomis Grammar School soon.
"My timeline is different from the doctors'," said Judd, who was honored in 2008 with the the National Distinguished Principals award. "I want to come back healthy and finish what I was part of starting."
Loomis Grammar School is a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school where 28.5 percent of students are considered low-income. The school boasts an 888 on the federal Academic Performance Index and is ranked in the top 10 percent of schools in the state with similar demographics.
"The school has won numerous awards," Judd said. "And that's fine and dandy, but there was always something missing. Kids learn the standards and regurgitate it on the test. That's always bothered me. We started looking to change our philosophy."
The change began in the school's two first-grade classrooms last school year after those teachers took professional development training from the Placer Area Reading Council. The training drew from a classroom management system called "the Daily Five," designed to teach kids to be independent readers and writers.
Loomis Grammar School teachers also developed their reading philosophy from Donalyn Miller's book "The Book Whisperer."
Now, the entire school has adopted new classroom management styles that promote independent reading time where students pick their own books.
On Tuesday morning, eighth-grader Jack Petty read "The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty," a story about a Marine fighting in the Vietnam War. Around him, his classmates read books like "The Help" as teacher Angie Borgwardt met with a student one on one.
"This year is the most I've ever read," said Petty, who has read 18 books since November. Petty said he is mostly interested in books about war, because he's "interested in what happened back then."
Petty likes the idea of being able to do something to support his principal.
"People want to read more to make him happy," he said. "I think it's working."
Inside first-grade teacher Amy Nash's class, she pointed to methods from "the Daily Five," as students worked independently at reading stations.
While most of the students read quietly to themselves, Nash worked with three students on their reading skills. A teacher's aide worked one on one with another student on spelling words. A school counselor, who was volunteering before her shift began, had a student read to her aloud.
Nash said students appreciate the choices offered in the new program, from where to sit to what books to read. One student read about snakes, while another read a Barbie book.
"The goal is to get them to work independently," Hazen said. "That way, the teacher can work in small groups. But, if you don't have the classroom management down, it doesn't work."
After implementing the system last year in first grade, Hazen said the results were staggering. More than 70 percent of students were reading above grade level, 20 percent were at grade level and the remaining 10 percent were close to grade level.
Judd said he is not sure how the reading emphasis will translate on standardized tests, particularly since the new philosophy de-emphasizes test preparation skills.
"Our scores will probably go down, because we will lose some test taking skills," Judd said. "But, if our kids can read, in the long run it will pay off."
Judd said he feels particularly proud when a parent tells him their child asked to go to the library for the first time or when he saw kids reading during recess because they wanted to finish a chapter.
"That's what its all about," he said.