What's the grade for extra reading time in low-performing Florida schools?

ALISON STEWART: Jaylon Jenkins just started third grade. And every day after school, he does homework with the aunt that is raising him, 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 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 EVERY DAY, for Jaylon and for every other student at his school: Phyllis Wheatley Elementary 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. A 2012 law required the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools in Florida to add an hour of reading instruction. The rankings were determined by the state's standardized reading test results. The expansion is estimated to cost more than $4 million dollars annually for Wheatley and 19 other public schools in Orange County, Florida, the 10th largest school district in the country.

SEAN BROWN: What do you think it is…?

ALISON STEWART: When we visited "Phyllis Wheatley" last year, Sean Brown was 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: After instituting the hour of extra reading every day in 2012, Wheatley saw the number of children reading a grade level go from 26 percent to 41 percent. Such a big improvement that Wheatley was freed from the reading mandate the following year. And reading scores then dipped slightly to 38 percent.

Statewide, in the first year 76 percent of schools with extra reading time saw an improvement in kids reading at grade level. 69 percent of the low performing schools also saw an increase the second year.

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."

ALISON STEWART: last year Senator Simmons pushed to expand the number of elementary schools required to have extra reading time…from the 100 lowest-performing to the 300 lowest-performing, including Phyllis Wheatley. By expanding the list, Simmons believes, schools that improve their test scores one year won't lose the extra reading time the next. This year the same 300 schools will provide that extra hour of reading time.

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: 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 served on the Orange County School Board for 16 years. The retired teacher and guidance counselor is not convinced mandated extra reading 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.

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.

Roach says the data that supporters cite only tells part of the story…and that similar students without the extra hour of reading have shown improvement in proficiency in the past few years.

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. 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.

ALLISON STEWART: But this year state legislators did not earmark new money for extra school reading time. Senator Simmons had also proposed expanding the mandate to include summer reading instruction and notifying schools no later than July if they must add the extra hour of reading in the fall. But the amendment was not successful.

Amidst the debate, Phyllis Wheatley Elementary is committed to keeping the extra hour, and has sought a federal grant to make sure Wheatley can pay for the longer school day whether it is mandated to, or not,

And it isn't lost on anyone that the school is named after Phyllis Wheatley a former slave who became a writer, the first African-American woman poet to be published.

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