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A Sarasota-based reading program works to boost elementary reading scores through play

Eric Garwood
Community News Collaborative
Students and an instructor play a version of Go Fish with cards that each feature a different sound.

Sarasota-based Rocket Phonics works with kids in Newtown to improve reading scores.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to a UCLA study that could not be verified.

Decades of research have pointed to the negative implications of low reading scores in elementary school, often associating them with negative outcomes later in life.

Rocket Phonics, a Sarasota-based non-profit, aims to address those risks by introducing play-based phonics tutoring to elementary students.

“Our goal is to make either Manatee or Sarasota the number one school district (in reading) in the state in the next three years,” said Dr. Stephen Guffanti, the founder of Rocket Phonics. “There are about 17,000 kids in the two counties that are not at grade level or below grade level.”

Eric Garwood
Community News Collaborative
Jayden and Dr. Stephen Guffanti work on a lesson.

Guffanti, who spent his career as a physician in California, developed the Rocket Phonics curriculum to help his daughter, Stephanie, “who, at 5 years old, declared she was not going to learn to read,” Guffanti said.

The program started as games for Stephanie and her dad to play with her stuffed animals.

The animals “never really caught on to reading, but by the third grade, Stephanie was reading at a third grade reading level,” Guffanti said.

After moving to Florida in 2014, Guffanti met Pamela Gevette, an educator with three decades of experience. In 2018, Gevette attended an event in Sarasota’s Newtown neighborhood and saw an opportunity to help.

“(It was an event) for reaching families… and (addressing) the lack of a role model in the community (youth), where they spoke on the difficulties of the students not knowing how to read -- and I knew the solution to the problem,” said Gevette, who connected Guffanti to the city of Sarasota’s Newtown Redevelopment Agency’s Advisory Board.

The initiative was funded with a $5,000 award from the Gould Family Trust Foundation at Gulf Coast Community Foundation which was matched by the city.

These days, the pilot program meets after school at Janie’s Garden, a Newtown apartment complex with an eye toward building the project toward its 20-student capacity.

On a recent session, about 10 children interacted with instructors, playing card games based on reading sounds or working their way through colorful workbooks.

Eric Garwood
Community News Collaborative
About 10 children took part in a recent Rocket Phonics session in Newtown.

One of the key reasons for the Rocket Phonics system, according to Gevette and Guffanti, has been the replacement of the phonics teaching system with emphasis on sight words and memorization.

“There are 800,000 words in the English language. Nobody can memorize all of them. If you don’t have a method of attacking new words, you’re going to be lost,” Guffanti said.

“Now, you may do fine in school, if you can memorize… but when you’re out in the world, and you’re trying to read words that you have not memorized, and you have no new word-attack skills - you’re lost…Two thirds of the population in the United States can’t memorize fast enough to keep up with grade level, so they can’t even read their textbooks.”

Guffanti hopes that one day Rocket Phonics will be used as a method to train educators in the program, so that it could be implemented in schools.

Guffanti said one student started the program in kindergarten, with test scores too low to advance to first grade. By the first benchmark test for first grade, the child was already at second- or third-grade reading level.

Patricia Deverna, 75, a retired teacher, was searching for the “right venue” to continue engaging with students when a friend introduced her to Rocket Phonics.

“I still had energy, I still had a love for the kids. I just needed the right venue…” she said, explaining her need for volunteering.

“Working with the kids isn’t really working. It’s a win-win situation where I am using my time for something enjoyable and valuable. And, I see the value in these little minds that are so curious, so you grab on to them, and the benefits that will follow them into the classroom and into life, the confidence they gain from making these baby steps.”

Eric Garwood
Community News Collaborative
Carlos works his way through a workbook page.

The program is always open to new volunteers, and encourages those without education backgrounds to try if they enjoy spending time with kids.

“One of the things that many people who are thinking about volunteering are concerned with is, are they capable of teaching a child to read?” Guffanti said.

“And the answer to that is that if you’re capable of having fun with a 6-year-old and consistently losing at Go Fish or whatever the game is, you can do the teaching… The purpose of the tutor is to have fun, because the child associates reading with fun.”

Catherine Hicks is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach her at chicks@cncfl.org.