Aug. 25, 2006 -- More than 500 students in Lancaster, Texas, had their summer vacations extended after failing to complete their summer reading assignment -- only they weren't exactly on vacation: The school suspended them until they completed their assigned reading.
The "get tough" policy is Lancaster Independent School District's latest effort to improve reading scores and overall performance in a suburban school that is described by many as "struggling and underachieving."
"Our kids cannot afford to have summer or winter breaks off," says Larry Lewis, school district superintendent. "Sixty to 75 percent of our students are reading two to five years below their grade level."
Experts praise Lewis' efforts to increase reading but wonder if there is a better ways to encourage this literary activity.
"I think there are a lot of other effective ways to encourage reading rather than punishment," says Donna Wiseman, associate dean of education at the University of Maryland.
"Not everyone has a computer and stacks of books, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to this assignment," she says.
This is the second straight year the Lancaster School District has put in place such a policy.
Last year 1,100 students were sent home for failing to complete the summer reading project.
"A lot of parents were shocked by the suspensions then," says Lewis. "But this year the whole city was involved, and most people were supportive."
Parents got caught up in the reading project, and reminders to complete the reading assignments were everywhere -- on restaurant menus and on street signs announcing "Summer Reading Due the First Day of School."
Lewis says many of the students that didn't do the assignment on time acted out intentionally against the policy.
"Some of the kids formed pacts that they weren't going to do the work," he says. "But compared to last year, there was a big improvement."
Of the 519 students suspended, all but 93 returned to school the following day having completed their work.
This is just one of the challenges Lewis and other Lancaster school officials face as the No Child Left Behind edict increases the pressure on schools across the country to get reading scores up or lose federal funding.
While the punishment may seem tough to some people, reading scores have gone up and students are more motivated and opting to take more rigorous courses, according to Lewis.
"Reading and reading comprehension are two very important parts of our children's development," says Maria Esparza, a parent and president of the PTA. She says she fully supports any academic initiative for the betterment of the school district's children.
Not everyone is happy with the strict new policy.
"I have mixed feelings about the summer reading project," says Aquarius Cox, president of the PTA for Lancaster High School and a mother of five.
Cox says students need more than an assignment to improve the situation.
"Parents need to get more involved, and take their kids to the libraries, and really encourage reading," she says.
The one thing everyone has in common, says Cox, is that "We are trying to raise our children to become great achievers instead of underachievers."