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Next fall's third-graders in all Minnesota schools have a shot at the Final Four

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, left, reads "Strong to the Hoop" to second-graders at Phalen Lake Elementary School on the East Side of St. Paul on May 10, 2018. The event was kicking off "Read to the Final Four" an initiative by the Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee and the NCAA to support educational development of the youth. (S. M. Chavey / Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL —It's almost game time in second-grade classrooms around Minnesota.

Students entering third grade in 2018 are invited to compete with their classmates against other schools for most minutes read.

The schools with the highest average number of minutes spent reading between this fall and April 2019 will receive prizes during the 2019 NCAA Final Four men's basketball championship, which will be played at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 6-8.

The 2019 Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee and the NCAA are partnering up to offer the program, Read to the Final Four.

"Academics is at the core of the NCAA's mission and we are thrilled to be a part of helping young people reach their reading goals this upcoming school year," Katrice Albert, NCAA executive vice president for the Office of Inclusion and Human Resources, said in a statement.

Program and city officials kicked off the event at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School in St. Paul on Thursday morning. Mayors and superintendents from Minneapolis and St. Paul addressed the students.

"Reading absolutely opens up the world. It opens up the world to your opportunities," St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard told the group of second-graders Thursday.

Read to the Final Four has been around since 2016 in the Final Four host cities, but this is the first time the program will span the entire state and last a whole year.

Students are expected to be proficient at reading by third grade, making that age group the perfect target for the initiative.

"Studies have shown that by the third grade students learn to read, and then after third grade, they read to learn," Albert said.

Participating students will have free access to more than 5,800 digital books as part of the program. Access will last through June 2019.

Schools, parents, and guardians can sign up children online now by visiting finalfourminneapolis.com.

The 68 schools with the highest average time spent reading will qualify for the tournament, and the final four schools will receive prizes. The individual students who spend the most time reading will also be rewarded.

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