TAMPA — For the past several years at Sulphur Springs Elementary, teachers and students have worked on reading for an extra hour every day in the hopes that the school’s low reading scores would improve.
Even though just 29 percent of the school’s 650 students are considered to be reading on grade level now, things are turning around for the East Tampa school: Its state-issued grade was bumped up from a D to a C last school year.
“It’s absolutely the extra reading that helps,” Principal Julie Scardino said. “It is so helpful to us.”
Sulphur Springs is one of 26 schools across Hillsborough County required by the state to add an hour of reading instruction to the school day this year.
Those schools — 24 traditional ones and two charters — found themselves on the recently released list of the 307 schools with the lowest reading scores in the state. Previously, only the 100 schools with the poorest scores were required to switch to a longer day.
Last school year, 11 Hillsborough schools had a longer school day. Four of them — Broward, Burney, Dover and Ruskin elementaries — moved off of the list this year. Seven stayed on the list: James, Just, Oak Park, Potter, Shaw, Sheehy and Sulphur Springs. And 19 were added: Reddick, Kimbell, Bryan, Clair-Mel, Cleveland, Lockhart Magnet, Cypress Creek, Desoto, Dunbar Magnet, Edison, Miles, Mort, Robles, Trapnell, Washington, West Tampa and Witter, along with charter schools Village of Excellence Academy and New Springs Elementary.
With just 23 percent of its students proficient in reading, Potter Elementary has the 25th-lowest reading scores in the state.
❖ ❖ ❖
Now, the district is working to secure scheduling, transportation and funding for the initiative with just over three weeks until school starts. District officials met last week with teachers union representatives and school leaders to plan.
Soon, principals will start meeting with their teachers and alerting parents to the changes. Parents of students who scored a Level 5, the top score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, can opt out of the extra hour.
An updated bell schedule, which works in the extra time at the extended-day schools, will go before the school board for approval Tuesday. Some parents will find that their children’s school day will begin 15 minutes earlier and end 15 minutes later.
Many of the extended-day schools already have 30 minutes of extra reading “intervention,” so teachers and students will only be staying at school for an additional half-hour each day.
School board member Candy Olson said she wished the Florida Department of Education had let the district know which schools would be on the list earlier. The list, along with school grades, was released July 11.
“I think more time is always great,” Olson said. “But I think the state is woefully ignorant of the fact that we start making plans before the school year ends. We will do it, but it’s just a scramble.”
All of the Hillsborough schools on the list were deemed a C or lower by the state last school year, and the majority of students are not reading on grade level.
At Sulphur Springs, almost all of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, based on income level.
Teachers there find that many students start kindergarten already behind, Principal Scardino said. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been in a classroom setting.
For two years, all teachers taught the extra hour of reading at the same time each day. But last school year, Scardino decided to stagger the schedule, allowing the resource teachers and reading specialists to rotate from classroom to classroom to help out. This helped improve the school’s grade, she said.
Hillsborough Deputy Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the district is encouraging schools to stagger the extra reading like Sulphur Springs did.
“What we’ve asked the schools to do is make sure that hour is put in there so those specialists can get around to first, second and third grade students,” he said. “Their time would be maximized.”
During the extra hour, teachers will give mini lessons on specific reading skills, such as vocabulary, fluency and phonics. Additionally, schools are encouraged to integrate technology into that time.
“Our teachers use data to look at areas of strength and weakness,” Scardino said. “We really use every minute of the day for instructional time.”
Switching to a longer school day was an adjustment for teachers and students at first, she said. But teachers, who were pressed for time before, welcomed the extra time they were given to work with their students, Scardino said.
❖ ❖ ❖
In addition to tacking 60 minutes onto the school day at the 24 traditional schools, more reading instruction will be worked into after-school programs three days per week for students who aren’t reading on grade level and the school year will be extended into the first four weeks of summer break next year.
“We can give them all kinds of time in the year, but if we don’t have those weeks in the summer, students may lose some of that momentum,” Eakins said. “That’s going to help ease the learning loss.”
Funding an extra hour of school at those schools will cost the district an estimated $350,000 each, which brings the total cost to $8.5 million, Chief Finance Officer Gretchen Saunders said. That money will come out of the budgets for supplemental academic instruction budget and reading comprehension.
As the district did not receive extra money to pay for the initiative, the curriculum and instruction department is working to shift things around to accommodate those costs, which include paying for teachers and staff to stay an extra hour every day.
The supplemental academic instruction budget covers things such as academic after-school and summer programs.
“We have to balance it very carefully,” Eakins said. “That particular budget is very critical for all of our schools. We have to be careful how we maintain support at all schools.”
At Clair-Mel Elementary, another school on the list, 34 percent of the 615 students are considered to be proficient in reading. Like Sulphur Springs, Clair-Mel bumped its D grade up to a C this year. There, students will start school 15 minutes earlier and get out 15 minutes later.
Principal Rick Grayes said 30 extra minutes were already built into the school’s schedule.
“Many of our teachers already arrive earlier and stay later,” Grayes said. “It wasn’t a major thing for their schedule. Plus, now they get some compensation for it, which is a positive.”
Grayes said the additional school time will help.
“We know our students have challenges,” he said. “Our goal has always been to accelerate the learning. We’re going into the year on a high note.”