How a high school basketball team inspires Prince William Co. elementary students to read

A Potomac High student reads “No One Owns the Colors” by author Gianna Davy to River Oaks students. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)
A Potomac High student reads a book to River Oaks students. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)
The varsity boys’ basketball coach from Potomac High School meets with River Oaks administration before reading to students. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)
During Tuesday’s pizza party, the conference room was lined with thank you cards from the younger kids. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

About five weeks ago, River Oaks Elementary School physical education teacher Jonathan Stone contacted the varsity boys’ basketball coach at Potomac High School with an idea.

He’s known Coach Anthony Mills for eight years, and wanted to start a partnership that would bring the now playoff-bound basketball team to the Woodbridge school to read to kindergarten and second graders.

Both Mills and the administration at River Oaks supported the idea, which Stone described as a plan to inspire kids to get excited about reading and engage with students older than them.

Now, once a week for 30 to 45 minutes, the Potomac High basketball players spend time in various classrooms, reading books to the younger students and asking them questions to keep them interested.

After Tuesday’s session, the elementary school celebrated the athletes’ efforts with a pizza party. But students and school staff are already asking when they’ll be back.

“Seeing someone from Potomac High School’s varsity basketball team is going to make them want to become better readers, want to become better students, want to become better athletes even, and to push themselves in seeing their bright faces,” Stone said.

In one classroom, high schooler Harlem Lyons asked students what their favorite colors were. He asked them which book they wanted to read, and they listened, awe-struck.

When the partnership started, Lyons said, he was nervous about putting his own reading skills on display. But, he said, he’s becoming more confident in reading publicly and engaging with the students.

Lyons is also noticing that students are actually listening and paying attention.

He noticed the bond the kids in the classes had with each other, and “that just led on to me [joining] them as a group,” Lyons said.

Second grader Nora Al-Damair said having the high schoolers in their classroom makes reading more interesting.

Student Kevin Agyemang said in addition to reading, his class sometimes practices with the basketball hoop they have in the classroom in an effort to impress the older athletes.

“I’ve been liking it,” Agyemang said of the partnership. “It’s so fun.”

While the students are enjoying reading, Mills suspects his players are getting more out of the program than the elementary schoolers. They often talk about pictures the kids draw for them or how they chant their names.

“The little things that my guys are doing — reading, cheering somebody’s day up,” Mills said. “It just gives them that freedom, that fresh air of ‘let’s go over here and do this for a little bit, and then we can get back to basketball.’”

Many students, basketball player Terrance “TJ” Bethea said, are impressed with his reading abilities. But, he reminds them that he was once in their shoes.

“A lot of them, it’s what motivated them to want to keep reading,” Bethea said. “I just tell them, ‘I was just like you when I was in the first grade.'”

The volunteer work also helps the team on the court. Their communication and support for each other has improved, Mills said.

During Tuesday’s pizza party, the conference room was lined with thank you cards from the younger kids.

Stone said he wants to keep the program running and bring in more teams from Potomac High.

“I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback,” Stone said. “Every time that they leave, they’re so sad when they leave, and they’re so happy when they come in.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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