Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The Phillies celebrated their World Series Championship with a parade down Broad Street last October.

The 700 students at St. Cecilia School in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia got a chance to relive some of that excitement this past January. That’s because a third-grade class at St. Cecilia, taught by Carol Grugan, did their homework – their reading homework.

The class of 25 students – 15 boys, 10 girls – won a classroom visit from the Phillie Phanatic and the World Series Trophy on Jan. 26 for their outstanding participation in the team’s “Be a Phanatic About Reading” program.

“I was shocked,” said Grugan, who has taught at the school for 18 years, and for 25 in the Archdiocese, when she received the call from the Phillies.

“I was watching a ball game last season and heard it advertised. We had done the program the year before so we decided to do it again. The children promised to read for 15 minutes a night and they had a log signed by their parents. I filled out an evaluation form for the Phillies and mailed it in November,’ Grugan said.

There are three third-grade classes at St. Cecilia. Altogether, 20 classrooms at the school participated.

Jess Cooney, Fan Development and Educational Programs representative for the Phillies, was impressed with the performance of St. Cecilia’s 9-year-old readers.

“Most of the kids read every day, so we decided to visit,” Cooney said. Out of 450 schools (1,500 classrooms) in the program only 25 get to see the Phanatic in the flesh, er … fur.

“The Phillies love to give back to the community,” Cooney said. “We feel it’s important for kids to learn and read. We work with a lot of schools where teachers find it hard to encourage reading. We use the Phanatic and baseball to get them excited.”

The Phanatic, who became a part of the Phillies family in 1978, is really Tom Burgoyne or Matt Mehler. The reading program, which is presented by Verizon, was started in 2004 and, according to the Phillies’ web site, “has reached over 200,000 children.”

While the Phanatic does not speak, he does read and write. He has a new children’s book coming out in the spring, “The Phillie Phanatic’s Parade of Champions.”

St. Cecilia’s students were given a preview at the assembly on Jan. 26, the beginning of Catholic Schools Week.

“Mrs. Grugan read the book to the student body and the Phanatic acted it out,” said St. Cecilia’s principal, Sister Lisa Ann Golden, I.H.M. “The book tells how (shortstop) Jimmy Rollins asks the Phanatic to organize the parade.”

The highlight, of course, was the chance to see the World Series Trophy that the Phillies earned by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in five games last fall. The Phanatic, clutching the trophy, paraded it around the auditorium first. The winning third-grade class followed.

“When the Phanatic entered the teachers were throwing confetti,”Grugan said. “We had pictures taken and then I got to read the book.” Three local television stations covered the event.

While the excitement and fun of the day are great memories, the skills developed during the two-month program continue to flourish. “You always want to get the boys reading,” laughed Grugan. “They’re usually into physical things.

“When I go into the library now I see the students picking up different types of books. You want to develop the habit of reading; you want them to be more critical of what they’re reading. The more practice, the better. We encourage them to read with their parents and to discuss what they read to better understand it,” she said.

A life of teaching has given Grugan this perspective: “I love teaching children, seeing them learn, sharing knowledge and coming to a point where they can think on their own.”

The Phillies have set May 29 as “Be a Phanatic about Reading Literacy Night” at Citizens Bank Park. Teachers can nominate two students as Most Improved and Most Outstanding readers. Ten in each category will be selected and honored on the field before the game against the Washington Nationals.

The students at St. Cecilia are currently writing thank-you letters to the Phillies.

“I tell the students that the Phillies worked hard to get to where they got,” Grugan said. “So whatever you want, you have to work at it.”

Jim Gauger is a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside, and a freelance writer.