Leaders from Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and Desoto discuss strategies for battling illiteracy
SARASOTA — The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR) brought together 100 mental health professionals, school administrators, faith leaders, business owners, volunteers, and nonprofit workers from Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto counties Thursday morning. While the fields represented were diverse, the common challenge running through dozens of initiatives in the four counties is simple: How can a community get kids reading?
Hildy Gottlieb, a social scientist, author, and motivational speaker, encouraged attendees to look beyond incremental solutions. She said programs that simply look to eliminate a problem are shortsighted, and leaders need to learn to ask better questions.
“It is mathematically impossible to create something positive by eliminating something negative,” Gottlieb said. “Yes, we need to be solving our problems, but we need to be aiming higher.”
SCGLR partners with community organizations, nonprofits, and foundations to support, promote or replicate initiatives that will help children to read on grade level by third grade across all four counties. One such initiative that kicked off this school year placed mental health clinicians in 14 Sarasota elementary schools. Ten of the 14 schools are Title I schools, with a majority of students from families with lower incomes. The Florida Center for Early Childhood supervises the counselors.
The positions are sponsored from a Florida Department of Education grant with supplemental funding provided by the Community Foundation of Sarasota. The program is based on the success of a pilot launched last year at Gocio, Alta Vista, and Tuttle elementary schools paid for with Title I dollars and funding from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Barancik Foundation. School officials had noticed that when they wrote a child a referral to see a mental health expert, families were not making the appointments.
Kirsten Russell, director of community investment for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, said after just one year of placing a handful of counselors in those three schools, the results were clear: the kids who had long needed help were getting it, and the school as a whole benefited.
“When you pull one child out and address their needs, the other 17 can learn,” Russell said.
Jennifer Garafola, the mental health therapist at Gocio, said she works with kids on their emotional responses to upsetting situations. She said many were learning to identify their unhealthy reactions and keep them in check.
While mental health counselors produced instant results last year, it takes time for that impact to be evident in the test data. Third-grade reading scores are often used as indicators of a child’s likelihood to graduate from high school, especially among children from low-income homes, and communities nationwide are struggling to improve the scores.
While there were some bright spots in the test data, third-grade reading scores in all four counties trended down last school year, with Manatee slipping below 50 percent and DeSoto having the lowest percentage of third-graders reading on grade level in the state. The campaign only began working in Charlotte and DeSoto this year. Campaign director Beth Duda said many of the campaign’s efforts will take years to show up in test scores, especially programs supporting children from birth to age 5. But, she said, it is important to remember the complexity of the challenge.
“We have to be aware we are dealing with people,” Duda said. “Every child and every family has a story.”This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership.