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Friday, Aug 22, 2014

Pinellas hoping to improve static reading scores

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With furrowed brows, red faces and watery eyes, teams of the best elementary student readers in Pinellas County Schools put their knowledge to the test Thursday in the 15th-annual District Battle of the Books.

The competition, which Dunedin’s Curtis Fundamental won for a second time, is just one of the efforts the school district has made to boost reading skills.

Yet, the latest third-grade reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, released last month, were flat in Pinellas County and across the state.

This summer, under the direction of first-year Superintendent Michael Grego, the school district will introduce a slew of new reading programs to improve the static test scores. Pinellas’ plans are “cutting edge,” say school district officials, who are hoping their latest efforts have more impact than what was tried in the past.

This year, only 57 percent of third-graders across Florida received a three or higher on the reading portion of the FCAT. Last year, 56 percent hit that mark, while 57 percent made a satisfactory grade or better in 2011. Pinellas third-graders this year were one percentage point behind the state average in reading, the same as last year, but those numbers were down from 74 percent in 2011. In Hillsborough, 56 percent of third-graders scored a three or better this year, with 57 percent of Pasco third-graders hitting that benchmark. Both scores were up a percentage point from 2012.

Reading is a major priority for Grego, who is adding new reading projects this summer.

Expanding programs such as the Battle of the Books will be a fun and effective start, parents said Thursday.

The competition, in which students read a series of books and team up to answer questions about them, was a good learning experience for Ian Johnson, a fifth-grader at Curtis Fundamental.

“They have lots of these competitions, and it kind of lights a fire under him,” said his father, David Johnson. “It’s like a sporting event for them. All the students come out and watch, so they make it fun and encourage other students to do their best. It gets them real excited.”

Starting this summer, every elementary student in the school district will take home a reading textbook, and students in all grades will check out at least three books from their school libraries. The library books can be returned to any public library in the county by August and they will make their way back to the appropriate school, said Bonnie Kelley, the school district’s supervisor of library media and technology. Other schools are hosting book swaps or sending home donated books with students.

Students in all elementary schools are signed up to log the minutes they spend reading at www.scholastic.com to be included in the Scholastic Summer Challenge to Read for the World Record, where schools and students can receive books or games as rewards for reading.

The school district is also compiling a free database of eBooks for students that can be accessed on the school district websiteon any computer or through a free app that can be downloaded on mobile devices. The school district’s own Ticket to Read program will allow elementary students to earn online prizes as they complete vocabulary games and read selected passages at home over the summer, and the online Destination Reading and Math Jump Start program tests students on reading comprehension.

“I find it very refreshing that Grego is looking for new ideas, and it makes more sense, instead of just sending home a reading log, to have students log in their information and be rewarded,” Kelley said. “We’ve tried all sorts of things in the past, but I do think the new superintendent is inspirational and is a very positive change.”

Because no librarians will be working at their schools this summer, principals have all been trained on how to check out books during the Summer Bridge program, a summer-long program meant to curb summer learning losses among academically struggling students through extra math, science, reading and writing instruction. The principals will also log the time that students in the program spend reading in the Scholastic Challenge program, Kelley said. Once school resumes in August, schools will add an extra hour to struggling students’ days called “Promise Time,” for one-on-one tutoring with teachers and extra reading help.

The school district has offered summer reading programs for years, but this year it’s increasing its efforts. While about 700 students participated in the district's third-grade summer reading camps last year, about 5,000 elementary students have enrolled in Summer Bridge.

Across the school district, everyone is hoping the new programs produce better results than past efforts, which teachers characterized as largely ineffective in this year’s school climate surveys.

“Systemic issues make it impossible to have high expectations when we have students at a [first] grade reading level,” said a teacher at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg.

“Why are students coming to high school that can’t read?” asked a teacher at Dunedin High School. “What is happening in the lower grades?”

School district officials say change is on the way.

“I think as we’re doing away with silos and getting to be more collaborative partners in fixing the reading problem, the students are really the ones that win,” Kelley said. “I think in the next few years we’ll see huge leaps and bounds and we’re well on our way.”


adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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