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RACINE - SC Johnson and other community partners are underwriting a yearlong reading initiative to spur area elementary students, with pizza parties and iPads, toward an audacious goal: To read 1 million books.

In a joint announcement on Saturday, SCJ, the city and other community leaders kicked off Racine Reads: Dream Big! as part of this year's Downtown Party on the Pavement. It's a communitywide challenge for all K-5 students in public, private and parochial schools east of Interstate 94 to collectively read 1 million books during the 2011-2012 school year.

The program, expected to cost more than $200,000, includes a $100,000 grand prize library makeover for the school that reads the most books per child. In addition to book reading, book clubs and a battle of the books to rally students, there are two special events planned for October - including live shows and performances of classics - geared toward bringing reading to life.

"It's a wonderful feeling turning the last page of that book that's hooked you. And that's what we need to encourage," said Fisk Johnson, SCJ chairman and CEO. "I believe the more a child feels the satisfaction of finishing a book, the more that child will want to read and the less we'll have to worry about illiteracy. And that's what this program is ultimately all about."

Reading, Mayor John Dickert said, is a fundamental building block of life.

"Parents, teachers, community members, we need you to rally around our students so they can read more books than they've ever read before," he said.

Children sat on the purple tiles of The Reading Zone, an area of the Sam Johnson Parkway designated for the program announcement, clutching yellow and purple pompons and green goodie bags of books and Barnes and Noble gift cards.

Johnson recounted times when he would read to his daughter, who's now 11, from their favorite book, "Goodnight Moon."

Now that she's able to read on her own, Johnson said, "it brings her adventure and takes her wherever she wants to go."

"But what's so troubling is that some children because they can't read or they can't read well, they give up," Johnson said. "They won't have the freedom to go anywhere they want to go through reading, and they're not able to go where they want to go in life either.

"Because if you can't read, it's like you're lost in a foreign country and you can't find your way out."

Racine Unified Interim Superintendent Ann Laing said students who cannot read well are at risk - of dropping out of school, of unemployment and of being unsuccessful in other areas as well.

Julia Burney Witherspoon, the founder of Cops 'N Kids Reading Center Inc., fired up the crowd, leading them in a chant of "1 million books." She is to be involved with encouraging students toward their goal in the coming months.

Calling Johnson "precious" - which drew laughter from the crowd - Burney Witherspoon thanked Johnson heartily for his commitment to the children and to reading.

"Because if our children don't read and they don't go to school, we'll build more jails. And I don't want to do that," she said. "I want to educate our children."

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