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Laura, left, and Nikki Vellidis enjoy the "book nook" at Tifton City Hall.
     It was a cool, clear November day in 2000 when more than 7,500 Tifton citizens crammed themselves into the local football stadium. The Tiftonites were not there to root for a football team, but to lift cheers for themselves.  They had good reason to cheer — In just four years the 39,000 folks of Tifton and Tift County managed to read one million books and they can prove it.

     Each time a local citizen finished reading a book, a computer test was administered and the reader had to pass to get credit for the accomplishment.  Credit totals were based on the book’s difficulty.  Dr. Seuss might be

worth one point while the works of Tolstoy (Tolstoy's War and Peace) carries 128 points. Tifton’s claim of one million books read was based on the test totals.

     With the job behind them, school kids and their parents marched into Tift County Stadium and laid claim to another title — Reading Capital of the World.  No one has challenged that claim.

     So what’s the big deal about a small town (Tifton population: 15,000) reading a million books?
Well, the deal was so big Time devoted a full page essay to Tifton’s passion for reading, and soon the network news teams were in town to film segments for CBS and NBC. Billboards sprang up along I-75 in South Georgia proclaiming Tifton as the “Reading Capital of the World.” More importantly, school test scores are improving and teachers say kids are understanding more of what they are taught.

     All of this could be the smartest marketing plan ever devised by a Georgia municipality (How else could such a small town get a million dollars worth of favorable national publicity?) or it could just be 

Terri Nalls with fourth-grade readers at Charles Spencer Elementary School.
the happy product of an unusual marriage between the City of Tifton and a local private foundation.

     Several years ago Tifton leaders took notice of the activities of the Tift County Foundation for Educational Excellence, including its sponsorship of the Accelerated Reader program. Accelerated Reader is a private education tool sold by a private firm in Wisconsin. For local elected officials and economic developers, education was a key to the creation of jobs. “We know that business and industry need a healthy pool of educated and educateable workers,” says Mayor Paul Johnson.

     “And that begins with the development of solid reading skills in our school children.” With several agricultural and science experiment facilities, a two-year college and the Rural Development Center, Tifton boasts of one of the highest populations of PhDs in Georgia. “I’ll go further,” says Johnson. “I believe we have the highest per capita PhD population in the nation.” 

     Reading, it seems, comes naturally to a large segment of Tifton’s citizenry. Leaders like Johnson have other motives for improving reading skills. “Citizens with good reading skills are better citizens,” he says. With the endorsement of the mayor and city council, the Tift County Foundation for Educational Excellence gets a number of contributions of city services. Fire trucks are provided to carry kids in parades, and police are present at reading events like a recent celebration in a city park. 

One of Tifton's educational highlights: old-time farming methods at the 
Georgia Agrirama
     City leaders take seriously their image as a reading capital. When a Florida-bound tourist gave a Tifton motel clerk a friendly taunt about that image, city leaders responded immediately.

     “I see that Tifton claims to be the Reading Capital of the World,” said the tourist. “Well, how
come you don’t have any place for me to read?” When news of the incident reached Mayor Johnson
and the council, they responded by installing  reading nooks in the lobby of the motel and at
City Hall. Today there are seven reading nooks around the city. “We might be the only
municipality in the country that installs reading nooks,” says Johnson. Tifton is already planning for next year’s goal of two million books

read. The city is inviting America’s First Reader, Laura Bush, to attend the ceremonies.  While Tifton’s reading virus began among its school kids, parents and grandparents have become infected. Johnson was moved to reread (Gone With The Wind) when the reading fever hit his town. “I’m reading some of the Harry Potter stories now,” he says. “I want to understand what all the fuss is about.”

     During the holiday season, guests of Tifton families were startled to learn that local
youngsters were not watching The Simpsons or Rugrats on TV, but instead  were lying on the floor gazing at a local cable channel where a video tape featured school kids reading aloud from their favorite books.

 
Article Provided Courtesy of Georgia Trend Magazine.
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