Leaphart Elementary School brought together dozens of men from the Columbia community together this morning to expose students to reading through its “Real Men Read” event.

The Lex-Rich 5 school has been hosting the event for the past nine years, but school officials say getting kids in the county to read now is more important than it’s been in recent years.

“Getting kids to love books in their elementary years is very crucial,” says Jill Downs, Leaphart Elementary’s reading coach, “that’ll make their futures so much brighter.”

But for that future to be brighter, Downs says student test scores need to be higher. Earlier this week, the South Carolina Department of Education released its annual report cards for schools across the state. For the 2021-2022 academic year, 50.6% of the state’s elementary schools scored at an ‘average’ level or lower in critical areas of learning like reading and math. Leaphart Elementary earned a ‘below average’ rating.

However, school district officials hope giving students a positive reinforcement to read through its ‘Real Men Read’ event will turn the page on low test scores.

“We know the importance of getting books into students’ hands early,” says Randy Norman, the principal of Harbison West Elementary School in Lexington-Richland 5. “Reading to students, providing them the resource to become better readers, that’s how we know our scores will increase.”

While increasing test scores is motivation for the school district to supplement reading opportunities to students, those who participated in ‘Real Men Read’ say they’re hoping to create a new chapter in the lives of students.

Robert Johnson has been coming to ‘Real Men Read’ since it started, and says, for him, it’s about leaving a legacy of learning behind.

“When I read to these kids, I feel complete,” Johnson says, “If I die tomorrow, I’ll feel complete knowing I left something essential to them for the rest of their lives.”

For those looking to volunteer at next year’s ‘Real Men Read’ event, Leaphart Elementary says there’s more information available on its website.