Two summers ago, only 53 percent of Ahern Middle School students achieved their summer reading goals but the New England Patriots' "Read Between the Lines” program, with the help of defensive back Ras-I Dowling, motivated roughly 900 Foxborough middle school students to improve for this year.
And that's exactly what they did.
With a visit from Dowling as motivation, 85 percent of Ahern Middle School students achieved their summer reading goals, up 32 percent from 2011.
Their reward was a visit from Dowling Tuesday as the Patriots’ defensive back was the guest speaker at a special assembly in the Ahern Middle School gymnasium.
The Patriots' second-year player took a chapter out of his team's "Patriot Way" philosophy to congratulate the Foxborough students on achieving their summer reading goals before challenging them to do improve again for next year.
"It was a great job for all of you to take on the challenges from your teachers and principal," Dowling told the students. "Last year, the principal said you all had 53 percent [of the school] do well [with summer reading]. This year, you all increased to 85 percent. So I think next year you all should increase more to 100 percent. I think it’s possible."
The gym full of students agreed - cheering wildly at Dowling's challenge.
"You all have the opportunity next year to get to 100," Dowling said. "If you read two books this summer, why not read three? Why not read four? ... Challenge each other to read more so you all can get to 100."
Dowling also stressed the importance of reading and taking advantage of academic opportunities.
"Academics is very important," Dowling said. "I was in the same shoes as you all not too long ago. I took every chance I had to read every day – the newspaper, magazines, anything I could get my hands on to read and take the opportunity to enhance my academics."
Dowling told students while success is great, there's always room for improvement. It is a message he learned from his father at a young age and has heard more recently from his head coach, Bill Belichick. And now, it is one he likes to share with students.
"There’s nothing wrong with being happy about doing good," Dowling said. "But you have to put in the effort to get to 100 percent. It’s possible. Everything is possible. Some of you are happy because you went up to 85 percent and that’s great, I’m happy for you that you did that. But I want you to do even better.
"As a kid my father always told me ‘I want you to do better than what I did.' He wasn’t able to go to college and graduate college. I was able to go to college and graduate. ... I think the opportunity all of you have right now is great. Just take advantage of it every day and anything you can get your hands on and read you can better yourself."
After Dowling addressed the students, Ahern Middle School principal Susan Abrams joined the Patriots' defensive back to select four names - one from each grade in the middle school - out of raffle boxes. These students achieved their summer reading goals and were rewarded with the opportunity to meet the Patriots' defensive back after the assembly and received gift bags from the Patriots Charitable Foundation.
For Dowling, the thrill of the morning was being able to encourage students to set goals to make their dreams come true.
"[I enjoyed] the opportunity to change one child's life," Dowling said. "Just encourage them to do good in academics and do whatever it is they want to and follow their dreams."
Dowling's visit was part of the Patriots' "Read Between the Lines" program, which features Patriots' players and includes visits to local schools to promote reading and the importance of education. "Read Between the Lines" is filled with educational fun, including a "Summer Reading Blitz," which challenges all students to set summer reading goals, followed by visits by Patriots players to schools if students reach their reading goals. Ahern was able to reach its summer reading goals and was rewarded by Dowling’s visit.
Patriots players visited four local middle schools, including Ahern, at the end of the 2011-2012 school year to challenge students to achieve reading goals over the summer and chart their progress in a special “playbook.”
Dowling said the importance of the “Read Between the Lines” program is the focus it puts on academic achievement.
"It’s OK to be happy that you’ve done good but don’t be complacent [with academics]," Dowling said. "You should try and strive to get better each and every year."
And as for the book Dowling is currently reading?
"Tony Dungy's 'Uncommon,'" Dowling said. "I think that's a pretty good book."