Story courtesy of Union County Public Schools


By Deb Coates Bledsoe
Communications Coordinator, Union County Public Schools

It’s not unusual to walk into Cuddy Arena at Wingate University and hear the roaring cheers of excitement filling the air, but on March 31, that high energy came from 800 Union County Public Schools third graders.

The excitement was generated by the inaugural Books and Brackets Reading Challenge; an event that has been so wildly popular with teachers and students that it is slated to be an annual event.

The literacy challenge, patterned after the March Madness basketball competitions, pitted third graders from all 30 UCPS elementary schools in a five-week reading challenge that began Feb. 27.

“We started this for one reason, because at Union County Public Schools, we value the importance of literacy and reading,” said UCPS Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan.

“By the time students enter third grade, reading is critically important to their future,” Houlihan said. “There is only one champion for literacy in Books and Brackets, but to me, all our students are winners. They’re all champions.”

During the five-week competition, each school reported weekly how many hours their third graders logged either at home or at school. The weekly countdowns narrowed the field each week from the 30 schools, beginning with the Sweet 16, then the Elite 8, the Final 4, and then the Books and Brackets Champions.

By the end of the challenge, the system’s approximately 3,000 third graders had read a staggering 26 million minutes. To put this into perspective, that equates to 430,000 hours or 53,750 eight-hour days.

Union Elementary School took the championship title this year.

“This is just amazing,” said Principal Jennifer Deaton. “It’s good to see the hard work. We’re the second smallest school in the whole county. To see them take this on was amazing.”

“I thought we were going to win,” said Union Elementary third grader Case Cox. “We started out strong and we read a lot. Toward the end, we figured we might be able to come to this field trip, so we started working even harder. And we won, so I’m really glad we read a lot.”

Union Elementary third grader Dalila Rorie was a little skeptical that her school would take away the championship title.

“When they said one school would be the champion, I was thinking we weren’t going to win because all those other schools have a ton of students more than us,” Dalila said. “Then when they said Union Elementary, I was so excited. I don’t feel just happy, I feel more than excited.”

Some of the strategies the school used were to have ongoing reading times for about two hours after school. They also held various fun events that focused on reading, such as an indoor campout, complete with tents, sleeping bags and pretend fireplaces.

“We had probably more than two-thirds of our students stay after school on the days where we had reading from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.,” Deaton said. “We were very pleased with that.”

Lindsay Merritt, instructional content facilitator at Union Elementary, said the school held a lot of after-school activities that also included parents. “We met at the park one Saturday and sat on the field reading. We included kindergarten through fifth grades. This hasn’t just been a third-grade initiative, the whole school got behind us.”

The dynamic Books and Brackets finale, held March 31 at Wingate University, featured Wingate athletes and cheerleaders who helped build the excitement for the end of the month-long competition.

“What a high energy event for Wingate and our student athletes to host the 2017 Books and Brackets victory celebration for some terrific Union County elementary students and their teachers,” said Wingate University Vice President Vint Tilson. “Congratulations to these third-grade readers for the hours read during the first annual Books and Brackets!”

Wingate athletes came from the basketball, softball, football and lacrosse teams.

“We’re here to show that you can be book smart and an athlete, as well,” said Wingate football player Cornel Cheron, a marketing intern at the university. “When you’re in school, if you study hard, it also translates on the field or court, whatever sport you play.”

Union Elementary has already begun planning for next year’s competition. “We have to be two-time champs,” Merritt said. “We can’t just do it once.”

Books and Brackets sponsors included United Way of Central Carolinas, Wingate University, Big South Conference, Union Power Cooperative, Goulston Technologies, Union County Education Foundation, the Union County Public Library, Scholastic, Hinson Electric, Robbins and Associates and Judge Chris and Kathy Bragg. Special guests included Board of Education members and representatives from the event sponsors.