Local leaders are getting creative in their efforts to help children.
With 51 percent of third-graders in Manatee County and 32 percent of third-graders in Sarasota not reading on grade level, community leaders in both counties have embraced a tough reality: The school districts can’t fix the problem on their own.
Third-grade reading scores have become an indicator for an array of outcomes and used as a shorthand predictor for future success. If a kid can read on grade level by third, they are more likely to graduate high school and get a job. If they can’t, they are more likely to drop out. Although the claim that states use the scores to determine how many jail cells to build is likely an urban legend, the connection between being illiterate in third grade and dropping out is strong, and the connection between dropping out and eventually being incarcerated is even stronger.
In response to the growing understanding of how important those scores are, community leaders in Manatee and Sarasota have used the school districts as laboratories of literacy, experimenting with an array of approaches and seeing what works. Nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and individuals have started pilot programs aimed at getting kids reading on grade level or at tackling the underlying issues that make that benchmark so challenging.
Here is a look at six of those experiments that are making a difference.
Summer Learning Academies: Sarasota
Learning often grinds to a halt over the summer months, especially in low-income communities where children don’t have access to books or educational activities. Research has shown that poor children lose an average of two months of reading proficiency each summer, widening the gap between them and their more well-off peers. To combat that loss, the Sarasota School District established Summer Learning Academies at all of the district’s Title I elementary schools.
The initiative, funded in part through the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, has grown from 62 students in 2012 to more than 1,100 students this year, and the district is planning to more than double its investment in the program in the next two years. Kirsten Russell, director of community investment for the foundation, said the school district has increased its commitment to the academies as test data shows its effectiveness.
“Children who participate in Summer Learning Academies saw dramatic changes in academic growth and school readiness compared to those students who did not attend,” said district spokeswoman Tracey Beeker. “Because of the positive outcomes, the school district intends to offer Summer Learning Academies to more students/grades at more school sites going forward.”
Handle With Care: Manatee
When students experience trauma at home, their behavior at school can take a turn for the worse. But if teachers and administrators know that a student had a rough night, they can respond to unexpected or inappropriate behavior with more discretion. “Handle With Care,” a program launched by the school district in conjunction with local law enforcement and Drug-Free Manatee, means school administrators and teachers will be notified after officials conduct a child abuse investigation or respond to a child’s home on a domestic violence call. The notifications don’t include any details of the incident, but they let the school officials know to “Handle With Care.”
Mike McCann, the district’s supervisor of dropout prevention and alternative education, said Handle With Care costs nothing, and several school districts around the state have contacted him about establishing similar programs. The district is averaging 30 to 40 notifications per month, he said, with most of those being for household member violence or inadequate supervision of a child.
McCann said he recently spoke with a teacher who received a notice on a student who was due to give an oral presentation that day.
“If she hadn’t known about the ‘Handle With Care’ notice she would have said, ‘You have to do this,’” McCann said. “She said there is no doubt it would have ended up with discipline referral but because she knew, she was able to approach the kid and see if he wanted to do it at a different time.”
Mental health clinicians in elementary and middle schools: Sarasota
Overwhelmed social workers knew children in some of Sarasota’s poorest schools desperately needed mental health therapy, but many working parents weren’t getting their children in for regular treatment. The solution? Put the mental health clinicians in the schools, so the children could easily receive the treatment they needed.
Most clinicians carry a caseload of 12 to 18 students per therapist, and the district is tracking the program’s effectiveness by monitoring students’ behavior and their response to therapy. The mental health clinician program started at Alta Vista, Gocio, and Tuttle elementary schools, funded by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Now, the district has expanded the initiative and added 16 mental health therapists at elementary schools and six at middle schools using more than $800,000 in funding from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Public Safety Act, according to Beeker.
The clinicians work with both students and their families, and Gocio Elementary Principal Steve Royce said he had already seen the benefits of the program.
“As we look for opportunities to have alternatives to suspension and go for more of a long-term approach, there’s tremendous value in the mental health position,” Royce said. “It’s something that I’m very thankful that we’ve been blessed with.”
Graduation Enhancement Technicians: Manatee
Missing just two or three days of school per month has been linked to lower reading scores and an increased likelihood of not graduating on time. The Manatee School District has tapped into Title I funds to place ‘Graduation Enhancement Technicians’ in each of its Title I schools. The GETs work closely with the children who miss school most often, helping them come up with simple solutions to improve attendance.
The initiative is funded through about $1 million in Title I funding annually, which pays for 17 GETs, a social worker to supervise the program, supplies, and professional development.
According to Elena Garcia, the district’s director of federal programs and grants, the number of children chronically absent in Manatee went down by 19 percent since the program’s inception in the 2015-16 school year. Garcia said the most significant impact could be seen at Oneco Elementary School, where the number of chronically absent students fell by 54 percent.
Housing authority absentee program: Sarasota
Kids living in public housing are among the most likely to miss school on a regular basis. But in Sarasota, families receiving public housing vouchers must ensure their child is attending school regularly or they could lose their housing voucher, thanks to a partnership between the Sarasota Housing Authority and the School Board.
Since the program was implemented in Sarasota four years ago, chronic absenteeism has been reduced by 25 percent among children living in public housing.
Former Manatee School Board member John Colon has advocated for the program to be duplicated in Manatee, but it is not an easy program to implement, Russell said. The Housing Authority and School Board must negotiate data sharing agreements, and it requires housing authorities to make school attendance a high priority. Plus, Manatee is served by two housing authorities -- the Manatee Authority and a Bradenton Authority -- and Bradenton’s agency does not have the necessary classification from the Housing and Urban Development to expand services.
Business community embrace of grade-level reading: Manatee
Beth Duda, the director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-level Reading, visited the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance in June 2017 to tell business leaders that roughly 50 percent of third-graders in Manatee County are not reading on grade level. Hearing that the future workforce was so far behind spurred the alliance into action. Since then, the alliance has established a committee to focus on grade-level reading issues with Anna Maria Oyster Bar owners John and Amanda Horne leading the way. The Hornes established Dive into Reading, a six-week program where community members eat breakfast with children at the Hornes’ restaurants and then read with them.
Heather Kasten, president of the alliance, said roughly 80 members volunteered to read with the program. She said this year the alliance will continue to encourage its more than 700 members to get involved with various reading initiatives in both Manatee and Sarasota.
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 https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.