A huddle of third-graders sitting "crisscross applesauce" style on the carpet of the Pillsbury Elementary School library were squirming and chattering Friday when Principal Jessica Skowronek asked, "Are you excited?"
One boy raised his hand said, "Because we're going to be on TV."
She prompted, "Because we've been selected for …"
"Read to the Final Four," the next student cried out.
The northeast Minneapolis elementary school was chosen as one of several statewide kickoff sites for the reading competition that culminates in the lead-up to the Final Four next April 6-8 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"And what are we going to do?" Skowronek asked the students.
"Win!" they replied.
Standing beside her, 6-foot-8 University of Minnesota basketball forward Jarvis Omersa added, "We are, too."
As indicated by the wide-eyed, giddy students, Omersa and his teammate Jarvis Johnson brought star power to the kickoff.
The reading contest uses the educational and familiar "myON" computer program. Participating students have access to 5,800 books through the program, which tracks reading time and includes helpful tools. So far, 200 schools have signed up.
In January, 68 schools with the best average reading times will advance to the playoffs. That's the same number of men's college basketball teams that will be in the March Madness bracket. Winners of the reading game will get yet-to-be-determined prizes.
Cordell Smith, the reading initiative project manager for Minnesota Final Four Host Committee program, said the aim is to get children reading by an age and grade where the skill becomes a predictor of success. He called it, "reading to learn rather than learning to read."
Omersa, a U freshman who graduated from Orono High School, drew the attention of the children with his height and the spiky blond tips on his dark curly hair. He folded himself into a chair for the first book he had chosen, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh."
"The head coach wants no sissies so he reads to us from something called Ulysses," Omersa read, interrupting the reading to ask the youngsters questions or playfully comment. "What do you like to do in the summer?" he asked.
A boy said, "I like to go swimming and I also like to travel."
Omersa also read from one of his favorite series of books as a kid, "David Gets in Trouble," in which the title character gets into all sorts of mischief. "He's skateboarding in the house," Omersa said. "That was ridiculous."
Next up, a teacher handed him, "Officer Buckle and Gloria." This time it was Omersa who was excited to read. "My grandmother's name is Gloria so we used to read this," he said.
Across the room, Johnson huddled with a group of students after reading them a book about a ladybug. They peppered him with questions about the habits of animals, such as whether a ladybug would eat a smaller ladybug and whether sharks eat their young. "We're going to have to look that up," Johnson said.
At the end, each kid filed by and gave the players a high-five.
Skowronek said the visit will be remembered. "We can refer back to it all year," she said. "We can say, 'Remember when Jarvis and Jarvis were here? We've got to show them we can win.' It's just another tool to motivate our kids."
rochelle.olson@startribune 612-673-1747 • Twitter: @rochelleolson