Reading a key focus as schools look to improve student performance

Paul Liggins, 10, will enter 6th grade at Pine View School in August. [Herald-Tribune staff photo/Thomas Bender].

Paul Liggins, 10, will enter 6th grade at Pine View School in August. [Herald-Tribune staff photo/Thomas Bender].

By Billy Cox

As you begin stocking up on supplies for the new school year, here’s a sobering factoid: Between birth and age 5, young brains are creating 1 million neural connections per second. Which means by the time kids enroll in first grade, their optimal brain growth has already peaked. And considering how reading comprehension will be a decisive factor in determining their long-term success as adults, that course could be set as early as the end of third grade.

“Remember,” says Sarasota School Superintendent Todd Bowden, “by and large we’re talking about 9-year-olds. And by that point they’ve been in school for less than half their lives. So school readiness typically falls outside the purview of the district, and there are many community resources that come into play.”

Florida kids need all the help they can get. Here’s the big picture: According to the most recent U.S. Census data, from 2014, the Sunshine State ranked 41st in the nation in per-student spending. Analysts said as many as 43,000 Florida third-graders will have to repeat this year.

And although Sarasota County retained its Florida Department of Education A-rating for the 14th consecutive year, one of three students in the district still can’t read at grade-appropriate proficiency levels. In Manatee County, a B-rated district, 50 percent of school kids manage to hit the grade proficiency mark.

The good news is that Sarasota’s third-graders improved three points in Florida Standards Assessment testing results released in May. That means 71 percent are reading at targeted levels. Manatee third-graders upped their reading skills by three points as well, to 50 percent proficiency, eight points below the state average.

That’s why Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading director Beth Duda warns that schools can’t do it alone.

“One of the things we often miss is, children are awake and in school for about 1,040 hours a year; at least, we hope they’re awake. So that’s 6.5 hours a day, 180 days a year if they attend all the time,” says Duda, who works with The Patterson Foundation. “But they’re awake and out of school for 4,000 hours a year.

“So we have to look at what’s happening after school, what’s happening during the summer. We can’t place the burden of changing the trajectory of these kids on an already overburdened school day.”

Unique partnerships

To that end, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading is a national initiative — more than 300 school districts now, counting 8 million students — joined by private philanthropies, colleges and neighborhood institutions such as libraries. The goal is to close the performance gap in underserved communities by working on three areas: classroom attendance, school readiness and summer learning.

The local version, Suncoast CGLR, involves school districts and eclectic partnerships dedicated to turning novel programs, like a brain-development app called Vroom, into lifestyle choices. And lately, charitable benefactors have stepped up to introduce or expand novel teaching methods into the classroom.

Reading Recovery, for instance, involves giving low-performing first-graders one-on-one attention four days a week. The strategy was made possible with the financial assistance of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Barancik Foundation and philanthropists Keith and Linda Monda, and Reading Recovery will now be available in every Sarasota County elementary school.

And then there’s Direct Instruction, also known as SRA. Taught sporadically in the district, SRA relies on a script, group repetition, and rhythm to improve reading scores. After learning of a desire by teachers to supplement core curricula at Title 1 elementary school Emma E. Booker Elementary, the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association union and Sarasota School Board member Eric Robinson made a show of committing their own funds to the project. The district eventually ponied up $100,000 to subsidize the program.

But the difference between success and failure, particularly for low-income kids, may well lie with the safety nets when school doors are closed, like CGR-sponsored summer reading challenges. By fifth grade, studies show that underprivileged students lag 2.5 to 3 grades behind their middle-class peers in scholastic aptitude. Studies also indicate six-week summer programs can significantly bridge that gap.

Some solutions may be the simplest to execute, however. Take Vroom, which just might be the perfect complement for time-crunched moms and dads struggling to carve out 30 minutes a day to read to their kids. This free downloadable app cues parents to turn routine interactions with kids — meals, baths, grooming — into opportunities for sharpening their cognitive skills. During a laundry moment, for instance, tell your toddler to separate the big socks from the small socks, or to put blues over here and reds over there. Heading out? Let your kid flip the light switch and explain cause and effect. Brain-programming involves mindful parenting, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Pilot-tested last year for 12 weeks on 300 local low-income families by The Patterson Foundation, Vroom received a 97 percent approval rating from users, the sort of proportions typically reserved for puppies, ice cream and dictatorship elections. Since then, local users have become so engaged that the Bradenton-Sarasota region ranked eighth nationally in usage earlier this year.

Reaching those families took effort. To find them, Suncoast CGLR networked with the likes of A New Beginning Preschool, Eternity Temple Church, Light of the World International Church, MCAA Head Start, Manatee Memorial Hospital, MCAA Healthy Families, Sarasota Housing Authority, Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the Sarasota County Health Department.

Consider also a program spinning out of a book by the same name — “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” Assembled by brain researcher Ellen Galinski, the lessons offer tips to parents and educators on cultivating youngsters’ early capacities for accepting challenges, making logical connections to the local environment, and empathy.

For example, take an adult who tells a 14-month old that the adult prefers broccoli to crackers. When asked to choose, however, the toddler will give the adult the cracker, or the kid’s own preference. Yet, when confronting the same scenario just four months later, the 18-month old will give the adult the broccoli instead. This is a teachable moment.

Patience, consistency key

Since last year, The Patterson Foundation has sponsored two “facilitator institutes” and trained 50 local “Mind in the Making” instructors, who have in turn trained 625 (mostly) parents in techniques that can give their kids a leg up on early school readiness. The foundation also absorbs the cost of books, gas cards, meals and even child care in order for parents to attend.

“Yes, there’s great work happening and we’re doing our best to capture data and see where there are duplications and where there are gaps,” says Patterson’s Duda. “Because we’re certainly not the only organization working on early literacy.”

The list is extensive, and it includes the Community Foundation of Sarasota, the Community Foundation of Manatee, United Way Manatee, United Way Suncoast, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Barancik Foundation, and both school districts, not to mention after-school providers such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

In fact, the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level-Reading has been so proactive, it was recently honored in Denver with an All-America City Award presented by the National Civic League.

“Even though we’re kind of the owner of the finish line, which is third-grade reading, it’s important to engage the kind of partners we have,” says Superintendent Bowden. “It’s something as a community we need to commit ourselves to. But we’ve got to be consistent. And we’ve got to be patient. Because we’re not going to see the results we want overnight.”

For more information on the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, visit http://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/ online.