ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County schools are constantly looking for innovative ways to engage children in the classroom, but a new city-led program seeks to start the education spark at home.
On Tuesday night, 16 families with preschool and elementary school-aged children gathered at South Community Library, 2300 Roy Hanna Drive S., for the first of six Prime Time family literacy programs. Hillsborough County elementary school teacher Windell Campbell donned a wolfish snout and gruff growl to read “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” getting not only the kids but the adults laughing to the beloved tale told from the wolf’s point of view. However, the questions that followed the story were anything but child’s play.
Was the wolf really in the wrong for eating the pigs, when that’s the kind of food he is meant to eat? Because the wolf was living among a community of pigs, would he have received a fair trial for such a crime?
The questions mirrored those that will be asked of students when the state fully adopts the Common Core, a set of nationwide academic standards that place a heavy emphasis on reading comprehension in all subject levels. However, they also teach parents that even if they’re not strong readers themselves, there are real-world lessons that can be found in even the most well-known children’s stories. When parents and children are learning something new together, such as hidden meanings in stories they may have memorized, those skills and conversations undoubtedly bleed into the classroom, said Nikki Hill, an English teacher at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg that directed the Prime Time discussion.
“The goal is to make parents want to continue this conversation with their kids way after Prime Time is over, because even though we’re talking about animals, these are real life issues that mirror how we view the world and our communities,” Hill said. “These kids are getting to hear their parents say things or make a stance on something that they may have never heard them talk about before, so they’re learning things from their parents that they would not have had this conversation not come up.”
Reading comprehension has “not been great,” in Pinellas classrooms, Hill said. However, creating more programs like Prime Time, where students have comfortable conversations with their parents about what they’re reading, helps students learn to internalize information as they read it.
“Then, they’ll have these kinds of conversations in their heads when they’re reading on their own in class,” Hill said.
The St. Petersburg Public Library received a grant from the nonprofit Florida Humanities Council to host the free program, which continues at 6 p.m. each Tuesday through March 18. The program not only aims to educate families, but also provides children and adults a free dinner. Door prizes are given out at every meeting, and children take home the featured book to read throughout the week with their parents.
Parent involvement has been a huge platform for the school district this year, from recruiting adult mentors to work with children that are falling behind in class to reinvigorating Parent Teacher Associations in the county’s five “turnaround schools,” those that continually have received D and F grades from the state.
“These kids that are struggling in schools, especially in south St. Petersburg, are living with friends, walking down the street to take a shower at a friends house before coming to school, living out of tiny hotel rooms and just wandering around living life by themselves. Their parents are out working three jobs, or are just gone,” said long-time Pinellas County School mentor Jim Oliver. “If we’re really going to change things for these struggling kids and struggling schools, it’s going to have to start with getting parents or caring adults more involved.”
Free dinners are a good start, said Demetria Bizell, who spent much of Tuesday night wiping spaghetti off her 3-year-old son Lathan’s face. Bizell is a single parent, full-time nursing student at St. Petersburg College and a patient care technician at St. Anthony’s Hospital. Her time is precious, she said, and her son deserves it all.
“He’s starting to read already, and I’m just trying to introduce him to reading as young as possible because he absorbs everything,” Bizell said. “It can be really overwhelming trying to juggle everything, so I always appreciate anything that can help me out.”
The school district also has begun looking for ways to bring lessons home for students. Last school year, about 160 students who speak English as a second language took home laptops for their families to use, and this school year the school district has set a goal to send laptops home to about 60 percent of students enrolled in its 37 Title I elementary schools. In addition to supporting the students at home, the efforts will help educate parents as well. According to the newest data available from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, one in five Florida adults lacks basic reading skills, and the state has seen a 33 percent increase since 1992 in the percentage of people that fall into the lowest literacy skill level. In Pinellas, 11 percent of adults 16 or older were found to lack basic reading skills.