Todd Bowden: Focus on reading success defines school year

Todd Bowden is superintendent of Sarasota County Schools. [Herald-Tribune archive/Mike Lang]

Todd Bowden is superintendent of Sarasota County Schools. [Herald-Tribune archive/Mike Lang]

Sarasota County schools commit to having every student reading on grade level

Summer may be a lazy, hazy time in some places, but for the Sarasota County School District staff, it is one of our busiest times of the year. There is a whirlwind of work required to wrap up the previous year and prepare for the year to come. We are analyzing test data, managing summer schools and academies, running reading camps, deep-cleaning buildings, conducting professional development, reorganizing the district offices, fast-tracking construction projects, registering, scheduling and planning, as always, for the next school year to be the best one ever for our students.

We have a lot to be proud of about our achievements from last year. Our 2017 Florida Standards Assessment scores were above the state average in every category and every grade level. Scores improved this year in nearly every grade level in both English Language Arts and math. We maintained our A grade from the state, keeping our record as one of only two school districts in Florida to earn that honor every year since district grading started in 2004.

The district offers rigorous classes to challenge students at all grade levels and to prepare them to succeed in college and careers after they graduate. But in order for them to take full advantage of their learning opportunities in later years, it is absolutely essential that they master the foundational skill for all academic success: reading.

Our goal is nothing less than having every student in the district reading on grade level. To reach it, we have launched a number of innovative programs that will meet the diverse needs and learning styles of our students.

In June, Sarasota and Manatee counties received the prestigious All-America City Award from the National Civic League for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaboration that involves the entire community in the essential effort to have every student reading on grade level by the time he or she finishes third grade. The initiative focuses both on improving reading skills and attendance because regular attendance at school is the basis for all academic success.

Our Reading Recovery Program, an enormous and collaborative community effort, is helping very low-performing first-graders bring their reading skills to grade level. Seventy-five percent of the students who complete that program nationwide reach their goal and require no further remediation. Sarasota outperformed that national average with 86 percent of these students reaching their grade level average.

Emma E. Booker Elementary and our K-8 school, Laurel Nokomis, offer students the Scientific Research Associates reading instruction approach, made possible by another collaboration with community partners. The SRA system focuses on rhythm, phonics, group drills and repetition to improve reading skill.

An Achievement Gap Task Force is busy developing specific approaches to improve the academic performance of African-American and Hispanic students. These efforts are working; we have seen tangible results. We are proud of schools like Emma E. Booker and Tuttle Elementary, which rose from a C to a B and Alta Vista Elementary, which rose from a C to an A school over the past year.

Summer Learning Academies modeled after the very successful Eagle Academy program at Alta Vista are being launched and expanded across the district. Tuttle, Emma E. Booker, Gocio and Alta Vista elementary schools have a two-generation component through which parents also can improve their job skills and break out of the cycle of poverty that so often interferes with their children’s chances for success in school.

The district also offers Summer Reading Camps to help third-graders reach the reading level they need to be promoted to fourth grade.

Programs to provide teachers with continuous information about individual student progress include the iReady program in elementary schools and middle schools and Achieve 3000 in our high schools. These programs identify areas where students are succeeding or struggling and help teachers design specific approaches to addressing individual student needs.

The district budget for the coming year includes additional staffing to help principals focus on instructional leadership and to address social and behavioral problems that may affect student achievement.

Like many parents, we can’t wait to start the new school year! We are proud of what our students and alumni have accomplished, proud of our dedicated teaching staff that continues to strive for excellence in new and innovative ways, and proud of our district staff that continues to ask how we can get better. Here’s to launching a new year of continuing to ensure success for every student, every day.