Lady Gaga Costume Is Principal's Promise in Reading Challenge

PHOTO: Principal Justin Vernon, dressed as Lady Gaga, poses with students from the Roger Clap Innovation School.Tim Geers/WCVB-TV
Principal Justin Vernon, dressed as Lady Gaga, poses with students from the Roger Clap Innovation School.

An elementary school principal in the Boston public school district showed up for work Tuesday wearing a Lady Gaga costume and prepared to milk a cow. He was not paying homage to the pop singer or to dairy farmers – he was making good on a promise he had made to his students.

With Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in tow, Justin Vernon, the principal of Roger Clap Innovation School in Dorchester, Mass., challenged his 170 students in kindergarten through fifth grade last October to read a combined 10,000 books by the end of the academic year. But before the students accepted Vernon's challenge, they wanted something in return.

"They pushed back on me, saying 'If we're going to have to read all these books to meet our goal, you've got to do something for us," Vernon said. "Somehow I got stuck with dressing up as Lady Gaga and milking a cow."

The students exceeded their goal by 3,000 books, averaging more than 75 books per student, Vernon said. Books read for class and read aloud by parents counted toward the total.

To hold students, of which nearly three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and more than a fifth receive special education services, accountable for their home reading claims, teachers had them fill out logs for their parents to sign. Kenny Jervis, whose son Nigel is in kindergarten daughter Sofia is in third grade at Clap, said his children took the "really took the challenge to heart," even competing among themselves.

By June, Nigel had read 200 books, including three from C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series, and Sofia reached 150 books – mostly longer than Nigel's, her father was quick to add. Nigel and Sofia's reading "really blossomed" over the course of the challenge, he said.

First-grade teacher Tim Apple said the school's weekly town-hall meetings, at which each grade touted its book tally, helped keep students motivated. A field trip to an IMAX theater to see an underwater documentary celebrated 5,000-book milestone. But Apple said the promise of seeing their principal dressed as the often ostentatious diva was a key factor driving students to read.

"Students were always asking 'Is he really going to do it?'" Apple said.

The answer to that question became clear Tuesday morning, when a tall figure in heels, snug black tights and a black dress emerged from a stretch limousine outside Clap. Adorned with a necklace, tiara, oversized sunglasses and plenty of makeup, Vernon made his way toward a cow in the middle of an athletic field behind the school.

Students, some accompanied by parents, swarmed around their glamorously clad principal and chanted "Milk the cow!" until Vernon, pulling back his long blonde wig, knelt down and delivered on the second half of his promise.

No word yet on whether Clap has plans for a summer reading contest.