When the bell rings at 8:33 a.m., a hush settles over Delsea Middle School.

For 16 minutes, everyone - students, custodians, teachers, administrators, aides - has a singular purpose.

They pick up thick paperbacks or glossy magazines, newspaper sports sections, illustrated comic books, and they read. No one is exempt.

Principal Piera Gravenor explains that the daily dose of "sustained silent reading," or SSR, is an exercise in helping children become stronger students.

"The research shows that when kids are proficient in reading and writing, they do better in all subject areas," Gravenor said. "And there's no way to get better at reading than to read regularly."

Before this school year started, Gravenor and district English supervisor Melissa Williams strategized about ways to bolster the 600-plus pupils' skills across the board at the school in Franklinville, Gloucester County.

SSR was the answer, they said - during homeroom, before the bustle of classes began.

"We stole a few minutes here and there, and came up with 16 minutes to pilfer for SSR," Gravenor said.

Once the school district was aboard - $6,000 was allotted to build classroom libraries - the ground rules were set. There would be no grades, and no restriction on what students read.

A key part of Delsea's program was involving every person in the building.

"If the kids don't see teachers and other adults reading, it's not important for them to read," Gravenor said.

The program is not unique or new. Sustained silent reading programs are in use around the country.

Research shows that most students read very little in school. It's not a failing of teachers, but a function of the need to fill instructional minutes with an ever-complicated curriculum.

"Free reading happens less and less with all they have to do in life - sports, technology, everything," Williams said.

Gravenor and Williams hope to see gains, and will measure students' progress.

English teachers administered reading comprehension exams in September and will give them again in May. Gravenor expects to see significant gains. She also expects to start "book talks," informal, voluntary explanations from students about the books they've read.

The school provides support for those who struggle in reading, and Gravenor's early fears that some students might simply refuse to read have proved unfounded. Unwilling readers - there have been a few - are given an "Invitation to Read" and sent to the counselor, not as a disciplinary measure, but as a way to figure out how to get them engaged.

"They're having a chance to meet with counselors, to develop relationships on a subject that's not related to discipline or problems or courses. They get asked, 'What do you like to do for fun? How can we help you?' " Williams said.

Gravenor headed down the eighth-grade hallway at 8:33, headed to a homeroom she'd picked to read with on a recent day.

She tried to tread lightly - the click of her chunky heels would disturb the reading atmosphere, she feared.

When she entered social studies teacher Tim Curry's room, students were hunched over

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

,

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

,

Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul

, Teen People magazine, and other material.

The only break in the silence was soft classical music in the background. Eyes were on pages.

Gravenor, a former English teacher who's been principal for three years, gets a charge out of seeing students reluctant to close their books when the bell rings. She even likes seeing kids sneaking in a few last pages under their desktops.

And the way students behave when those 16 minutes are up? Heaven, Gravenor said.

"When the bell to end SSR rings, instead of the screaming atmosphere, it's such a quiet, calm atmosphere," she said.

There are some personal perks for the principal, as well.

"I am for the first time in a long time reading for pleasure," said Gravenor, pointing to her copy of

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria

?, her latest choice. "I love it."

Teachers turned out to be the slowest to warm to the idea. Sixteen free minutes not spent grading papers, responding to parents' e-mail, or completing other administrative tasks?

"I had to sell it a little," Gravenor said.

The sales pitch worked, apparently. Halfway through a recent SSR period, four teachers clustered together in a hallway with paperbacks and magazines.

"I think it's a great way to keep the kids engaged. It gives a good start to the day, a quiet start," said Tina Basile, a special education teacher thumbing through a Reader's Digest.

Head custodian David Harrington plunked himself down at a desk in the main lobby and pored over a newspaper. He likes the small break from his busy day, and he likes the message he's sending to Delsea Middle School students.

"It reinforces to the kids what they're learning throughout the day - that reading is important," Harrington said. "Plus, it gives me the time to read the paper."

So what do the children think?

Eighth grader Kyle McCulley, who's tackling

The Lightning Thief

, is a proponent.

"It's a good program," he said. "They let you read things you like. Plus, I like that everyone reads - the teachers, too."

Sarah McAlister is a serious reader. She read

Wuthering Heights

and said she enjoyed the small oasis in the school day set aside for a favorite pastime.

"It gives us the chance to get into the school mode before school starts," Sarah said.

For Williams, it's about empowering children to be lifelong readers.

"In school, we say, 'Like it or not, you're reading this book,' " Williams said. "In SSR, we say, 'There are no restrictions. Read whatever you like.' "

Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.