(Photo: Maureen Gilmer/IndyStar)
The noise was deafening inside the University of Indianapolis gym. It wasn't a basketball game at Nicoson Hall, but a rally for reading with 1,000 special guests — third-graders from Warren and Lawrence townships.
The students and their teachers joined UIndy and NCAA staff, student-athletes and Olympic medalist Ashley Spencer on Friday to kick off the NCAA Team Works' Readers Become Leaders program with a raucous pep rally featuring music, dancing, games and a reading pledge.
Indianapolis universities are partnering with the NCAA for the literacy program, designed to motivate students to achieve reading goals throughout the year and perform better on the ISTEP test in the spring. The program has operated in some township schools in the past couple of years and recently was expanded nationally.
Butler, IUPUI and UIndy will work with Indianapolis Public Schools, Pike, Warren and Lawrence townships this year — 6,200 third-graders — hosting literacy drives, book distributions, pizza parties and special recognition at collegiate sporting events for students who reach their goals. Student-athletes also will visit schools as their schedules allow, said Victor Hill, associate director of NCAA Team Works community programs.
"We hope the interaction with NCAA student-athletes, who are on a path to graduation, will also be a positive, motivating experience for the youth," he said. "We want to see more college-ready children. I would love to see it expanded to every school district here."
Readers Become Leaders supports teachers who are dealing with a "literary crisis" that affects all demographics, Hill said. "Educational data has shown that if reading is below grade level by the fourth grade, students are four times more likely to drop out of school."
Robin LeClaire, principal of Eastridge Elementary in Warren Township, said the program has been operating in her school for three years and makes a difference. "It really gets the kids fired up for reading; they make a connection to the student-athletes. A lot of them have never been on a college campus, so this helps get them ready for higher education."
The message was loud and clear at the rally: Reading is the key to academic success, which paves the way for more opportunities in the future. That's what track and field star Spencer, who graduated from Lawrence North High School, told the kids.
"When I was in third grade like you, I fell in love with learning, fell in love with reading, fell in love with traveling to other parts of the world through a book. That's how I got where I am now. I'm an Olympic bronze medalist, I'm a college graduate from the University of Texas, and I have a degree in secondary education."
Spencer encouraged the students to go to college, "and don't let anybody tell you that you can't. One day, you'll be standing up here."
To that, a young boy in the crowd yelled out, "Hallelujah!"
Hope Woods, a third-grader at Brookview Elementary in Warren Township, could barely be heard over the noise in the gym, but her enthusiasm was clear.
"This is really cool. I just want to appreciate everyone who's doing this because this is one of the greatest things to ever happen to me," she said. "Before this, I was really scared to take ISTEP, but now I'm ready."
Call IndyStar reporter Maureen Gilmer at (317) 444-6879. Follow her on Twitter: @MaureenCGilmer.