PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - Reading is now a top priority for many school districts across Mississippi. A new state law requires third graders to read at grade level. If not, they can't move on to the fourth grade.
This year, the Pascagoula School District created a campaign to help children sharpen their reading skills. It starts with some tiny tots.
It was not the kind of huddle Pascagoula High football players are used to seeing on game day. On Friday morning, they seemed to be enjoying a blitz by a bunch of four-year-old preschoolers.
"They jump around, climb all over you, sit right next to you, tell you what book they want to read," said Pascagoula High Junior Jauan Collins, who plays defensive tackle.
The Panthers' visit to First United Methodist Preschool in Pascagoula was part of a game plan to tackle illiteracy as early as possible.
"They have to see that reading is important and it gives you so much information. Having the football players come and reading with the four-year-olds, that just adds a little incentive to it. These little ones are lighting up with these big guys in here and having such a good time," said Belinda Dammen, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education for the Pascagoula School District.
Sparking that love of reading is important, because from now on, third graders can be held back if they can't pass tougher state reading requirements.
"Children that are in third grade have to be reading at grade level to pass third grade. So that just puts another step out there that children have to meet, and we want to start that long before they ever get to us," said Dammen.
This year, the Pascagoula School District developed the "Read, Read, Read" literacy campaign. Every Friday, Pascagoula High JROTC cadets spend about an hour reading and mentoring children at Arlington Heights Elementary, Eastlawn Elementary, and Beach Elementary Schools.
"It makes me feel really good, because I'm helping them learn how to read and how to comprehend the reading. So it's really cool seeing them learn the words as they go along," said Pascagoula High Sophomore Benjamin McMillan.
The older students inspire the little ones.
"They're my role models as well," said Pascagoula High Freshman Kiara Baker. "Some of them tell me I'm their best friend, so it's very emotional for me."
Students in the Teacher Academy and volunteers from the community also visit the elementary schools to read with the children. The goal is to show that it takes teamwork to break down reading barriers.