Only one New Jersey school - J. Harold Van Zant Elementary in Marlton - placed in the Top 20 of last year's Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, a contest run annually by the Scholastic Corp. that reinforces the importance of reading outside of school.

Knowing the staff at Mays Landing's George L. Hess Complex prides itself on its literacy curriculum, John Yotnakparian, general manager of Scholastic's Northeast Division, challenged the school to become the top one in the state.

Hess librarian Janet Yunghans said she, fellow librarian Kristen Mulraney and library paraprofessional Gayle Luderitz were cautiously optimistic about their chances.

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"We were a little overwhelmed by it, but then we thought, 'We could do this,' because our children are avid readers and we have a very large school," Yunghans said.

This summer, the students proved 'avid readers' to be an understatement, accumulating a whopping 907,524 minutes between May 1 and Aug. 31, good for first in New Jersey and thirteenth in the nation. The school will be featured in the 2013 Scholastic Book of World Records.

While reading has always been an important component of the curriculum at Hess, mobilizing the student body to complete the challenge was no easy task, Yunghans said.

Luderitz was tasked with enrolling each student in the program and creating profiles for them on Scholastic's site through which they would log their readings. The librarians spent May and June on an awareness campaign. Teachers pushed the program inside school, and parents kept their kids accountable during the summer months.

On Nov. 13, Yotnakparian and other Scholastic reprsentatives visited the school at lunchtime to present the students and staff with a congratulatory banner that will hang in the lobby. The students were also treated to ice cream donated by U.S. Foods.

Yotnakparian, who addressed the students, said he was impressed by their accomplishment.

"I think it's incredible," Yotnakparian said. "You just think of every short story they read, their imagination has just got to be kicking, so I think it's fantastic for them to keep their reading muscles going. I'm pretty impressed."

Vivek Kholi was the top reader at Hess, accumulating 24,125 minutes read. Dawson Young was second with 16,515 and Edward Ross III was third with 15,509.

Kholi said he enjoys reading because it opens up possibilities not available in reality, noting that his favorite book read over the summer was the medieval story "The False Prince."

"It's like really fun, reading, because most of the things that can't happen in real life happen in books," Kholi said.

With more than 900,000 minutes read, the natural next step would be to break into seven digits, and in fact, Yotnakparian has already issued the challenge.

Achieving this first challenge was an effort that required full participation of the school community, Yunghans said, admitting it might be tough to outdo this performance. Still, she said, they plan to give it the old Hess school try.

"The people at Scholastic are challenging us to break a million," Yunghans said. "I don't know if we're going to do it or not, but we'll give it a try."

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