OTTUMWA — Jeff Hendred gave new meaning to the term swimsuit Thursday afternoon.

As a reward to students for improving reading proficiency, the Wilson Elementary School principal plunged down the outdoor water slides — while wearing a business suit — at The Beach Ottumwa during the school’s swim day.

The challenge to the principal fit into the school’s May PBIS theme of “Make a Splash.” It came about after students at Wilson were challenged to improve their reading proficiency by 5 percent earlier in the school year.

“We were at 42 percent and set a goal of 47 percent,” Hendred said of measurements used to check proficiency. He said students are assessed in the winter to see where they’re at and then again in the spring.

Hendred said they weren’t quite at their goal at one of the assessments, and staff began brainstorming ideas to motivate the students to reach their goal.

“It’s about pushing yourselves harder. We wanted to set the challenge high,” he said.

That’s when the idea came to make the May theme “Make a Splash” and introduce the kids to the reward they’d receive if they met their goal.

“I told them, ‘If we reach our goal, I’ll go down the slide,’ and they started screaming,” Hendred said. “Why not give them the opportunity to work toward something?”

The big announcement came more recently. “I told them, ‘We didn’t reach our goal. We reached 50 percent.’ The screaming was louder.”

It was back Thursday. Students gathered around the slide entry pool waiting for their principal to come down. There were cheers and chants of “Go Mr. Hendred” as he ascended the stairs and waved to the students.

As Hendred splashed into the water from the white curly side, students surrounded him, and he told them, “One more time.” He then returned to the top of the slides, this time taking the yellow tube slide, head first (kids, don’t try that).

“The water feels good. The kids were excited. I’m excited,” Hendred said after he got out of the water. “But we’re not done yet.”

He spoke of various reading challenges the staff is setting before the kids for summer vacation and that there would be rewards for meeting them when they returned to school in the fall, including a “VIP lunch with Mr. Hendred” for the highest achievers.

But first, Hendred had more swimming to do — this time in a regular swimsuit. “I’m gonna hit the waves, hit the obstacle course. I’m gonna make it all happen,” he said with a big grin on his face.

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.