TAMPA — Even before that dreaded state report card grade, the principal of Franklin Boys Preparatory School knew reading was a weak spot.
So John Haley and reading coach Kelly Baker decided to face the issue head-on. Summer was coming, and they tried something a bit more ambitious than the usual summer reading lists.
Along with reading the books — one for each grade — the students were encouraged to complete a series of hands-on assignments.
"We didn't present it as an option," said Haley, who launched the all-boys magnet middle school a year ago. "We told them, 'This is what's expected.' We kind of rolled the dice."
They got far more than they expected.
Nearly all 360 students bought or borrowed the book. They spent the summer making displays out of Lego blocks, clay and — in some cases — cardboard and twigs; writing comic books, survival guides and posters; and researching animals on the Internet.
"I got email after email over the summer," Baker said. Kids wanted to know if they were doing their projects correctly. They asked if she would read their work.
They brought their displays in even before school began, and in a few short days the media center was overflowing with their work. Haley had planned to give a prize to the best project. Now he says he'll have to give five.
"We set the bar very high and they pole-vaulted over the bar," he said.
The father of five boys, Haley has embraced the single-gender format even as some critics have warned of the potential for discrimination.
Students from all corners of the district arrive by magnet bus, dressed in collared shirts and ties to foster a preparatory school environment.
Nearby, the Ferrell Girls Preparatory School offers a similar experience to middle school girls.
While parents and teachers say the environment has improved immensely at Franklin, its state grade fell from a low C to a D. Haley said that, as in many schools, changes to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the grading system worked against Franklin.
Still, he was disappointed by the grade, as it affects the school's reputation, and is determined to show improvement this year.
Surveying the projects on the first day of school, he said, "Our boys have come in ready to work and we could not be any more proud of them."
It helped that they picked the right books, said Baker: Peak, by Roland Smith, for the eighth grade; The Maze, by Will Hobbs, for the seventh grade; and Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, for the sixth grade.
"We wanted them to be high-interest books," she said. All are about adolescent boys, with adventure themes that can be explored further in science, math and geography class.
And that's exactly what those classroom teachers are now doing, Haley said. "It really reinforces the value of reading."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356.