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As Reading Scores Lag, New Pilot Program Hopes Individual Attention Will Make A Difference

At Palm View Elementary, teacher Karen Ammons teaches reading comprehension to third graders/ Kerry Sheridan/WUSF
At Palm View Elementary, teacher Karen Ammons teaches reading comprehension to third graders. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

Poverty has long been an obstacle to reading. A new program called the Big Plan aims to boost reading scores by giving extra, individual attention to a select group of young readers who are close to reading at their grade level, but not quite there.

The program is being rolled out at two pilot schools in Manatee County, where county-wide according to Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) scores, 51 percent of third-graders were marked “proficient” last year.

The United Way Suncoast on Monday gave $1,000 each to Samoset and Palm View Elementary Schools in Bradenton, to help pay for books and materials.

large check for $1,000
Funding comes from the United Way Suncoast and other foundations. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

At Samoset Elementary in Bradenton, two out of three third graders (66 percent) couldn't read at their grade-level, according to last year’s FSA results. At Palm View, 59 percent were not proficient.

As part of the Big Plan roll-out at Samoset, assistant principal Samantha Webb said trained volunteers affiliated with United Way Suncoast have already begun spending extra time reading one-on-one with a few dozen students.

"Our goal and what we would like to achieve by really having our learning pals from United Way work with our students is that we're targeting 10 students in grades for second and third and our goal is that these students who are on the cusp of being proficient will achieve proficiency by the end of the year," said Webb.

"We did choose students that right now are not getting any supplementary instruction from outside resources. And we figured with people who are invested in their learning and their growth, that we can make a big impact on these students."

The second pilot school, Palm View, is still selecting target students and will start soon.

“Remember, this is above and beyond what we're already doing,” said principal Kaththea Johnson.

“And so this being above and beyond allows us to home in specifically on a group of students at a time.”

kids books on a table
Books in the library at Palm View Elementary. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

The program will eventually roll out to 10 schools.

"We are focusing on our 10 most impoverished schools that are really the ones that are struggling the most,” said Manatee County Schools Superintendent Cynthia Saunders.

Saunders said a long-running partnership with the Campaign For Grade-Level Reading didn’t produce big change, so more key players were invited to the table to brainstorm solutions.

“We've really not seen the needle move as we would have liked. We've improved some but not to the level that we had hoped. So we instituted a board just for this initiative. We have the Early Learning Coalition at the table, we have the Education Foundation as well as the Community Foundation there. We have county government. So we have a lot of different people at the table, because we know it is a community issue.”

Reading Mastery stack of K level workbooks
Workbooks to help kids read. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

Saunders said the program may take shape differently at different schools, according to student needs.

“You really want to start with a small number, and tweak it, if need be, to ensure that the plan you have is the right plan and successful. But we are individualizing per the individual school,” she said.

Initially, the hope was that big changes could occur in a year, but Saunders said that was scaled back given the enormous challenge that reading represents in impoverished areas and among communities where English is a second language.

"It really is a pretty large mountain to move. So one year really isn't reasonable for an expectation. So we've sat back and said, okay, we do need to have a goal. It does need to be quickly achieved, but it needs to be something that can be achieved within a working framework,” she said.

"Within three years, we're hoping to really see a significant improvement in our grade level leading initiatives."

Palm View Elementary school

According to Bronwyn Beightol, Manatee area president at United Way Suncoast, the Big Plan is “working to ensure that our children read on grade level by paying attention to individual students, not just groups of students and hoping that that will get us to success,” Beightol said.

“The school district has children for a short amount of time – just 14 percent of their time is spent in school. The rest of the time is out of school. And that's our community responsibility and our community mandate to work and ensure that our children thrive.”

At Samoset, the goal is to get the number of proficient readers from its current level of 34 percent to about 60 percent in three years.

Overall, according to Manatee County Schools, where nearly 3,500 K-3 students are identified as “chronically underperforming,” the plan is “poised on cutting the number of underperforming students in half over the next five years.”

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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