The Force is with kids who read

R.D. White Elementary School students added a new chapter to the "Star Wars" legacy on Friday.

With Darth Vader in tow, kindergarten through third grade students impressed upon their classmates that The Force was with them.

"Focus on reading comprehension every day," they said in unison, adding a past-tense "D" to the word "force."

The Sith lord had something to say and leaned into school Principal Suzanne Risse's ear.

"He's saying you must read to comprehend," Risse told the assembled crowd of about 600 students, parents and teachers. "He came from the Dark Side to help us be better readers."

Not that they need it, if academic achievement data from the California Department of Education is any indication. The school is well above the goal on state benchmarks, and all of its student groups met their targets on federal exams, according data released earlier this month.

"Every teacher pumps it up and we devote time to [reading]," said Tracy Holland, a teacher. "By you wanting to read, they'll want to read."

There's usually a theme to the school's academics, Holland said. Pirates and jungle animals have been featured during assemblies in years past.

"We don't do small things here," Holland said.

Students prepared a "Star Wars" prologue before their reading saga unfolded.

Second-grader Allen Macam told the assembly that students aren't reading.

"It is a dark time," he began. "[Students] are only playing video games, texting on their iPhones and laying around like couch potatoes."

But Daniel Armstrong said there was a new hope: "Rebel readers, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire."

The students ended their play and dueled with toy lightsabers. They ended a song about the joys of reading when ominous John Williams music began to play.

The Jedis landed at the school free of charge, courtesy of the Lightsaber Guild, which features actors in costume. Their appearance was a surprise, teachers said.

The characters appeared and the students went wild. Some were terrified by Darth Vader, even as their classmates tried to convince them he was merely an actor in costume.

Students returned to Lara Svab's class to make Yoda Soda, a mixture of sparkling water and lime sherbet. It was a break from reading, Svab said. Instead, students relied on measuring tools and math skills.

But their minds were elsewhere, they said. The assembly was also the kickoff to the school's annual Accelerated Reader program, a competition where students challenge themselves to read books at or above their grade level.

The system is designed to reward reading comprehension, as students must score 80% or better on a quiz. They ultimately earn prizes, ranging from Lando Calrissian lanyards to mini light sabers.

"It's good for my brain and my imagination," said Riley Williams, a second-grader. "You learn a lot."

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