Within minutes of announcing that it was time to read, the 26 third-graders in Anna Clickenger’s class at Galtier Community School in St. Paul fell silent and settled into their favorite reading spots.

Sharon Hendrix, the school’s principal, whispered as she looked on, explaining that she’s still delighted to see an entire class become so engrossed in their chosen books.

“Just look at them,” she said, careful to keep her voice down. “They are just so pumped to be reading.”

It’s a small miracle to have an entire class remain so hushed and focused, Clickenger said. But it’s a sight she’s seen almost daily since November, when she decided to participate in the Read to the Final Four program. The yearlong, statewide initiative put on by the NCAA and the Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee aims to engage Minnesota third-graders in reading through a tournament-style competition.

The first “rounds” began last fall with 275 schools from across Minnesota participating. Those schools received access to an online platform called MyOn, which has 5,800 digital books across various reading levels. The program offers students and teachers a way to track time spent reading and students’ reading levels. As the competition continued, the schools spending the most time reading emerged as the leaders in March Madness-style brackets.

Through every round, Galtier prevailed to become one of the final four schools in the competition.

“We’re just the little school that could,” Hendrix said.

The other three schools that made the final round were Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart in Buffalo Lake, Liberty Ridge Elementary in Woodbury and Scandia Elementary School in Scandia. Together, 252 third-grade students at the top four schools read for about 700,000 minutes. They read 31,000 books and 1.2 million pages. Students read an average of 11 hours per week.

Teachers, principals and students from those schools were invited to meet Gov. Tim Walz last month and were honored on the court during the Reese’s Final Four Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Clickenger, a first-year teacher, didn’t have any expectations when she signed up her class for the reading program. She couldn’t have predicted that in a matter of months her students would be choosing difficult chapter books and excitedly rattling off the plots of classic novels. Through the program, she can view each student’s progress and see what types of books they are choosing. (The “scary” and “gross” categories proved the most popular.)

“In my first year, I figured I’d try anything,” Clickenger said. “I figured maybe we’d make it a few rounds but I never thought we’d make it to the final four.”

While the competitive aspect encouraged some students, advancing to the next round was never the primary focus, Clickenger said.

“I honestly didn’t even know how the brackets worked at first,” she said.

She added her own incentives and activities to encourage a love for reading including, “dress like your favorite book character” day. She created a “reading bingo” that prompted students to read at home with fun variations like reading with gloves on or reading while sipping hot cocoa.

Once the class found out that it had advanced to the “Elite Eight” round, Clickenger hosted a “Read In” and invited parents to join their children for a few hours of reading at the school on a Friday night. Community members and school board members came to see the voracious readers in action.

The overall engagement of both students and communities was the true barometer of success for the program, said Cordell Smith, the reading initiatives project manager for the Final Four local organizing committee.

“If we grabbed a kid or two and they improved their reading, then we moved the needle in the right direction,” he said. “That’s exactly what we were trying to do.”

Smith said he lost count of the number of stories he heard about children who discovered a newfound love for reading through the program.

The online reading platform wasn’t designed to address any reading challenge but simply offered teachers another vehicle to get kids engaged in books, Smith said.

“We want them to carry this and continue to enjoy reading long after the Final Four has left Minneapolis,” he said.

Matthew Gant, 9, said he plans to continue keeping a reading log even after the competition has ended, though that might have to do with beating his twin brother in number of minutes read.

“I love that we learn new things from books,” Gant said. “No one can take that away from us.”

For 8-year-old Jane Williams, the best part of the program was seeing her classmates find joy in reading.

“At the beginning, they read because the teacher told us to,” she said. “But now I think everyone likes it.”