HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Marissa Marton is the 5th grade Literacy and Social Studies teacher at Auten Road Intermediate School, but spent the previous six years as the school’s art teacher.

Her favorite color? Blue. As in “Big Blue.” As in New York Football Giants. That blue.

“I’m a huge Giants fan,” she said.

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That’s how Giants running back Rashad Jennings wound up visiting Marton and her students earlier this week.

A graduate of Bridgewater-Raritan High School, her relationship with Jennings and his Rashad Jennings Foundation started through chats on Instagram, where she first learned of the RJF Reading Challenge, designed to ignite students with a passion for reading and literacy through offering incentives for their efforts.

The Reading Challenge seemed to be the perfect fit for the school and their new Literacy teacher.

Marton traveled to New York City last year to learn more about the foundation, and soon became the Reading Challenge coordinator for New Jersey. The foundation works with schools in New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Florida.

The Reading Challenge program has one major goal: to get students excited about reading. While many schools have reading initiatives, the RJF Reading Challenge incentives are unique.

During the month of the challenge, students read as many books as they can. The books that are read must be on the student’s Lexile Level or approved by the student’s teacher.

After the student reads the book, they take a computer-based or teacher-created assessment of the content. When the student passes with an 80 percent or better, they are automatically entered into a drawing to win prizes like NFL game tickets, signed merchandise and memorabilia from professional athletes, locker room tours, a SKYPE session with Jennings and other athletes, gift cards, pizza parties and more.

With the help of all ARIS Grade 5 literacy teachers, the challenge was a huge success. Grade 5 students read over 750 books.

“He’s been great with my students,” Marton said. “He’s been very encouraging and has written back to them on Instagram.”

Marton arranged for Jennings to visit ARIS, but did not tell the students he was coming. The students gathered for an awards assembly, excited to see who would win the football memorabilia that had been promised to the most voracious readers.

But when the NFL player walked through the door, the students responded like true-blue Giants fans do when Jennings scores a touchdown.

Jennings spoke to the students about the struggles and challenges he faced as a student.

“He had a reading disability as child, he struggled in school and spoke to the students about that,” Marton explained. “He struggled with asthma, he was an overweight kid. He talked about believing in yourself, working hard and having a positive attitude.”

After Rashad’s encouraging words, he pulled 24 students’ names from the reading entries. Students won autographed practice cleats, game worn gloves and photographs.

Afterwards, Jennings visited with Marton’s students.

“He came to class and spent 80 minutes with us; they were writing a reflection essay on their experience with Rashad,” she said. “He was asking them about their favorite books, signing autographs, he was very down to earth, very humble.

“He has a huge heart,” Marton added. “It’s obvious, you can see it, the way he interacts with the kids.”

Jennings plans to expand the reach of the foundation; his ultimate goal is to have an RJF chapter in all 50 states, with NFL players involved in each state supporting students.

Studies show that the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure, according to the foundation:

-          One in four children in America grow up without learning to read;

-          Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare;

-          6 out of 10 households do not purchase a single book in a year;

-          to determine how many prison beds will be needed in the future, some states actually base their projection on how well current elementary students are preparing on their reading tests;

-          50 percent of Americans read so poorly they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading a cereal box or prescription drug labels;

-          44 million adults are now unable to read a simple story to their children.