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Closing the gap: Low-performing Florida grade schools add extra reading time

September 27, 2014 at 12:30 PM EST
The state of Florida recently mandated the 300 lowest-performing elementary schools add an extra hour of reading instruction each day, the first in the country to do so. But while supporters are convinced the extra time will improve kids' reading, not everyone is convinced it's the right solution. NewsHour Special Correspondent Alison Stewart reports.
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ALISON STEWART: Jaylon Jenkins just started second grade. And every day after school he does homework with his aunt and guardian Antonia Williams.

ANTONIA WILLIAMS: Remember, we talked about the tenses, from ride to…

JAYON JENKINS: R, O, D, E.

ANTONIA WILLIAMS: I’m not a tyrant. When he first comes home I normally have– let him have a 20-minute break. He gets a snack.

You want apple?

And then we start his homework. I’ll give him a break in between because it’s a lot for a second grader– to retain and to comprehend, so this is our– this is our daily schedule.

ALISON STEWART: A schedule that already includes an extra hour of reading, and only reading for Jaylon and for every other student at his school: Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Apopka, Florida, just northwest of Orlando in Orange County.

Antonia, what did you think when you first heard that Jaylon’s school was going to require one extra hour of reading?

ANTONIA WILLIAMS:I was like, “Yes.”

ALISON STEWART: Yeah?

ANTONIA WILLIAMS: I was, like, “Yes.” I mean, what else would a child be doing that hour after school, you know? Yes, it would be a longer day and I was concerned about him being focused and staying on task for such a long time. But he’s in a structured environment. You know, it’s not like they’re on the playground for an extra hour. They’re reading.

ALISON STEWART: Has he asked you why he stays an extra hour?

ANTONIA WILLIAMS: I don’t even think he realizes it.

ALISON STEWART: The extra hour of reading at Wheatley Elementary is not voluntary.

This school year in Florida, the 300 lowest-performing elementary schools are required to add an hour of reading instruction. A ranking determined by the state’s standardized reading test.

It is estimated to cost just over $5 million dollars for the 20 traditional public schools required to add the hour in Orange County, the 10th largest school district in the country.

It’s an expansion of a law passed in 2012 that focused on the 100 lowest-performing schools. And that included Phillis Wheatley Elementary.

SEAN BROWN: What do you think it is…?

ALISON STEWART: Sean Brown is the school’s principal.

SEAN BROWN: Once we hit that last hour of the day it’s strictly reading.

ALISON STEWART: From fourth graders working on reading comprehension questions…

STUDENT: We could eliminate underground…

ALISON STEWART: To 1st graders just learning the basics…

STUDENTS: They get darker and darker…

ALISON STEWART:
Students, taught by teachers from the school…

TEACHER: Hare…

STUDENTS: Hare…

ALISON STEWART: Read, read. And read some more.

SEAN BROWN: We want to hone in on the reading skills and then just push the students– academically as much as possible.

ALISON STEWART: A high-poverty school where all students get free breakfast and lunch, Phillis Wheatley Elementary is in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. And is the type of school administrators think could particularly benefit from the extra reading time.

Do you think your students need this extra hour?

SEAN BROWN: Yes. I do.

ALISON STEWART: Why is that? Is it– is it because they’re so far behind? Is it just not enough time during the day to teach these kids?

SEAN BROWN: There’s several reasons. I know that with poverty and adding things of that nature, I know that a lot of our students they’re so much further behind a student that has two parents or a student that has a high working-class family.

So this is the mechanism that will help close that gap between the students that are living in poverty and students that are not living in poverty.

ALISON STEWART: And principal brown is convinced it works.

After a year with the bonus hour in 2012, Wheatley saw the percentage of children reading at grade level or above increase by 58%. Across the state nearly three-quarters of the schools with the extra hour showed an increase in students reading at grade level.

DAVID SIMMONS: The results have turned out to be dramatic

ALISON STEWART: Republican State Senator David Simmons is the force behind the state law adding the extra hour. The son of two public school teachers, he says he first heard about adding extra time from a principal at a struggling Orlando school.

DAVID SIMMONS: And– in talking to him he said, “If I just had more time with these children, I could make a big, big difference with them.” And he said, “It’s not that they can’t learn. It’s they don’t have enough time to learn.” But it has to be done right.

Alison, you can’t have pizza parties during that extra hour. You have to do it at the right time. You have to have dedicated teachers who know what they’re doing. You have to have a school system that is behind it.

ALISON STEWART: Senator Simmons says expanding the number of schools from 100 to 300 helps ensure schools aren’t penalized by losing the extra hour after their scores improve.

When you first presented the idea of this additional hour of reading to your colleagues, what kind of questions did they have for you?

DAVID SIMMONS: The natural questions. And– the important questions. Is it gonna work?

ALISON STEWART: Make the case for me.

DAVID SIMMONS: Okay. Certainly. Other nations, industrialized nations, send their children to school, all of their children, significantly longer than we do here on average in the in the United States. We’re talking about– trying to cram a huge amount of information into the minds of these children in a limited amount of time.

It’s like trying to put 25 pounds of sugar in a 10 pound sack.

RICK ROACH: Senator Simmons is looking at a piece of fool’s gold and he believes it’s real genuine gold.

ALISON STEWART: Rick Roach is one of eight elected school board members in Orange County

A teacher and guidance counselor for 14 years in the county, roach also trained teachers around the country and has served on the school board since 1998. He’s not convinced that the extra mandated time is the solution that it seems.

RICK ROACH: I don’t think it has true educational value. And I think it could be more helpful if you just take your eyes off of a test score. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that child comes out of there a better reader or has developed a love of reading.

It simply means they’ve jammed up a raw score on a single measure test.

ALISON STEWART: And there’s the question: Who gets to decide the best way to help kids learn?

What was the debate like or the discussion like when it first came up, “Should we have kids read for an extra hour after school?”

RICK ROACH: Please– I have to laugh at that one. There was no debate on that. There was simply– the command came down from the Hill, “Thou shalt put an extra hour into the school.” There was no debate, the board didn’t discuss that. Local– there was no local feedback into that.

Not to mention the fact that many people who make these laws never taught one day in a classroom. I wouldn’t for a minute serve on an aviation board or a medical board.

ALISON STEWART: There are other concerns as well: District officials find out which schools are required to add the extra reading hour just weeks before school starts. Bus schedules have to change and teaching staff secured. Some parents voiced concern over the exhaustion level of kids whose days are pushed an hour later.

And the reduction of family time. And while kids who scored the highest level on the reading section of the state’s standardized test can opt out. For the most part, everyone is required to stay the extra hour.

School board member Rick Roach questions whether it really works. He says the numbers that supporters point to only tell part of the story and that similar students without the extra hour of reading also showed improvement over the same time period.

If something like this happens and it helps anybody, isn’t it worth continuing and trying?

RICK ROACH: You know, I think few people would disagree with the fact that– we’re going to give kids who– may be low readers extra time to read. But there’s a consequence to that. You may in fact drive up a reading score, but you also lose other– other features as well.

If they’d gave us some options, that same money would buy seven teachers per school. You could reduce class size. It would have bought 14 paraprofessionals. You could’ve extended the year by 20 days and kept the same number of hours if you let local control come into play for the same money.

ALISON STEWART: The criticism I’ve heard from a couple of different folks who are involved in education, that they work on the local level. They’re in the schools.

And the idea that they have to take this money, come up with it and put it just on reading, everybody supports reading but perhaps that’s not what their school needs.

DAVID SIMMONS: If the vast majority of your students have on our tests, you know, standardized tests, shown that– they cannot read at grade level, then they need reading instruction. That’s a simple fact of life.

TEACHER: Thumbs up if you remember and you understand.

ALISON STEWART: And there’s still the issue of funding; who pays for it now and in the future.

What would it take for this program to be guaranteed funding? Right now it’s year to year to year, if the district can come up with the money.

DAVID SIMMONS: I can tell you that it is my commitment, now that we are seeing the performance that– that we will in fact dedicate the funding for this in order to get this accomplished.

SEAN BROWN: In my heart, I knew that if we can keep the students here longer, we can actually make a difference.

Alright, ya’ll look fabulous.

ALISON STEWART: Amidst the debate, Principal Sean Brown is committed to keeping the extra hour, and even sought a federal grant to make sure Wheatley can keep that time – whether mandated to, or not,

And it isn’t lost on anyone that the school is named after Phillis Wheatley. She was brought to America a slave, but became a great writer, the first black woman poet to be published.

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