St. Margaret’s principal goes bald for book reading challenge


Hugh Keenan is rocking a bald new look, and it’s all in the name of literacy.

The principal’s St. Margaret of Cortona School students took part in a read-a-thon organized by the parent’s association that ultimately raised more than $10,000 — 50 cents for every minute read. Keenan promised his students if they reached their goal, he would shave his head. And now when Keenan looks in the mirror, he remembers how those readers met that goal, and then some.

But the reading challenge wasn’t just about the twisted treats the students got to inflict upon their principal. It was about education, too.

“I learned some new words,” second-grader Chizara Nnamdi said. “And (for) words I didn’t know how to pronounce … I asked my mom and then she helped me with it. Then I remembered them.”

Funds from the read-a-thon are earmarked to update the auditorium sound system at the West 260th Street School. Money also will add technology in the lower grades’ classrooms, like with tablet computers.

Each student was given a code they were to use on a website logging the number of minutes they were reading to receive donations from friends, family, and anyone in earshot of wanting to help St. Margaret’s.

Our goal “was $4,000, but we hit $5,000,” eighth-grader Maureen McCormick said. “That was so crazy and it was so unexpected. Then when (Keenan) said our next goal was $10,000, I was like, ‘That’s crazy. We’re never going to get there.’ And then like a day later, we were at $9,000.”

Keenan offered a number of rewards — usually involving ways of torturing him — along the way. For example, reaching $4,000 earned the students a chance to tape their principal to the wall. That was rewarding for the students, even though he fell off.

“I think I know the problem,” Nnamdi said. “We didn’t put the tape near his shoes.”

With the read-a-thon success, McCormick — who also is St. Margaret’s student council president — is excited to see how future students will make out when such a fundraiser rolls around again.

“We give ideas for student council and now we have the money to fund those ideas,” McCormick said.

The read-a-thon wasn’t only an opportunity to improve the school but a chance for Mason Galeas to challenge himself. The third-grader focused on reading chapter books.

“Now I’m over short books,” Galeas said.

“Short books make me feel like what is the reason for this book, because it’s not a chapter book, so it doesn’t tell you what’s really going on.”

Galeas enjoys reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and books by Judy Blume. Even 7-year-old Nnamdi took a step forward and dived into an “Amelia Bedelia” chapter book.

McCormick fell in love with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book her class is reading together.

“Hopefully, we are fostering a love of reading and we are encouraging them to read,” Keenan said. “And what better way to impact the school and an age-old need to fundraise than with an activity that can be entertaining, but also provide academic benefits by challenging students to read.”

But the deed wouldn’t have been possible without Tony Dulaj from Tony’s Barber Shop. He had the clippers that were heard around the world as clumps of Keenan’s hair fell one after another.

Seeing that was certainly a surprise for Galeas.

“I wouldn’t have expected he would do crazy things like shave his head and duct tape himself to the wall,” he said.

Yet Keenan’s non-traditional ways of encouragement definitely served as a motivator to get his reading done.

McCormick learned a lot about her school’s work ethic — and her principal.

“I feel like he wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s raise money,’” McCormick said. “He was like, ‘Let’s read books and raise money, and I’ll give you guys things.’”

There was almost a partnership between the students reading and Keenan offering his hair as tribute to encourage them to do so, McCormick said. This made the challenge seem both fair and fun.

“Hair grows back,” Keenan said. “But reading is a lifelong skill.”