TEMPE – As Sparky, Arizona State University’s mascot, entered the gym, a loud roar filled the air and a group of excited third-graders held up their palms, eagerly awaiting high fives from the Sun Devil.
“Sparky was a big hit, as usual,” said ASU men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley. “The kids love seeing him, which is great.”
The mascot was at Aguilar Elementary School in Tempe Thursday morning to get the third-graders pumped up for the NCAA’s upcoming “Read to the Final Four” program.
The program features a tournament-style reading competition between third-grade classes at Arizona schools. The classes must advance through a 68-school bracket that culminates with the crowning of a champion on March 31 during Final Four Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
“The more minutes that you read, the farther that your school can advance,” said Dawn Rogers, CEO and executive director of the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee for the Final Four.
In addition to seeing Sparky and learning details about the competition, the kids also got to hear Hurley read Anthony Curcio’s children’s book about Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, “The Boy Who Never Gave Up.”
“It was a good book to read,” Hurley said. “Steph Curry is an inspiring guy. A lot of the students obviously know who he is, so it was fun for them, and they were very attentive, especially this early in the day.”
Similar events are scheduled to take place across Arizona involving basketball coaches from the University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University and Northern Arizona University throughout October, according to Rogers.
“It’s really fun to have the coaches come in and read to the students and have them really talk about the importance of practicing their reading and perseverance,” Rogers said. “I think it’s really special for the students.”
The program is just one way in which the 2017 NCAA Men’s Final Four is already making an impact in the Valley.
“We can enjoy March Madness in our classrooms, as well as on the basketball court,” Rogers said. “I think that it’s really fun to be able to use the platform of the Final Four to hopefully incentivize our students to read more.”
Read to the Final Four is the product of a partnership between the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee, NCAA Team Works, Helios Education Foundation, Read On Arizona and myON.
The program comes at a crucial time for Arizona schooling, as a January review by Education Week concluded that Arizona schools earned a D-plus, ranking 45th in the nation.
“I feel like our students today are really struggling with getting by and living,” said Sonja Long, a third-grade teacher at Aguilar Elementary. “Parents are working multiple jobs, and so kids are having to grow up on their own and having to read is not something that’s at the core right now. And that’s something that we’re trying to change here at Aguilar.”
The Tucson nonprofit Literacy Connects found that 74 percent of Arizona fourth-graders test below proficient in reading, which is why third grade is a pivotal year for instilling reading habits into children, according to Long.
And good reading habits can make a big difference in outcomes.
A national study conducted for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on children’s issues, found that students who were not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without graduating than those who were proficient readers.
“Kids come from second grade, and they’ve been read to,” Long said. “Then in third grade, they’re reading to learn. So we’re really getting them excited about reading topics.”
Apparently, however, not all of the Aguilar third-graders walked away from the “Read to the Final Four” event totally satisfied.
“I thought they were gonna give us all basketballs,” one third-grader muttered to his friend as the students filed out of the gym.