BRADENTON -- "Why is reading so important?" Manatee County Superintendent Rick Mills asked a group of fourth-graders crowded around him in a classroom Tuesday morning.
"It makes you smarter," called out one boy.
"You can expand your vocabulary," said a girl.
Mills nodded at each suggestion, then offered his own take: "A book opens up the world."
School district officials filled Jessie P. Miller Elementary School for the annual Read Across Manatee Day to emphasize the importance of reading in Manatee schools. Officials started in the school Media Center for breakfast, then picked out books as third-graders sang about learning before each went off to different classrooms to read to groups of students.
Mills said they're trying to encourage reading in younger age groups.
"Reading has to be a priority," he said. "The earlier we start, the better they learn. We've even started programs encouraging 3- and 4-year-old children to start reading."
Mills asked the fourth-graders what they did over the winter break before getting more specific.
"Who read a book over break?" he asked, as most hands shot up. "Every hand should go up."
He talked to students about the importance of reading to all subjects of learning, and told them to set goals to read a certain number of books each year. Then he pulled out the book to read to them called "One Grain of Rice," a story about an Indian Raja who hoarded rice for himself during a famine before a girl tricked him into sharing it with the people.
"What did you learn?" Mills asked the students once he'd finished.
"You should not be greedy," a few students volunteered.
"How about, leaders need to set an example," Mills told them. "They should hear the needs of the people that they're leading."
About 20 district officials, including Manatee County School Board members Dave "Watchdog" Miner and Charlie Kennedy, and Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instructional services, participated as part of Florida's Celebrate Literacy Week. District officials read at more than 10 elementary schools as part of Read Across Manatee Day.