TAMPA — In the past few years, arguably no state has made a bigger push to improve reading skills than Florida. Yet in the midst of ongoing budget woes, the platoon leaders in that effort have never been on shakier ground.
After five years of increases, the number of reading coaches in Florida dropped for the first time this year, from 2,560 to 2,382. The Pinellas school district alone cut 63.
Further thinning of the ranks is likely next year, given big cuts to the federal program that funded many coaches and a state budget forecast that grows grimmer by the week.
"There very possibly could be further reductions," said Evan Lefsky, director of the state's Just Read, Florida! Program. But "districts are fighting to hold on to them because they realize the value."
No one is suggesting that reading coaches — highly trained specialists who teach teachers how to better teach reading — will disappear.
But the cuts come while Florida students, long at the bottom of the academic barrel nationally, are finally making strides in reading. And it's happening while many supporters, including Gov. Charlie Crist, were hoping to dramatically expand the number of reading coaches.
"The problem is, we don't have all the money we need for education," said Joe Torgesen, director emeritus of the Florida Center for Reading Research, another vital cog in Florida's literacy effort.
In a classroom at Bing Elementary, southeast of Tampa, reading coach Tammy Maxwell, 39, leaned forward in her chair with a book about penguins. Seated in front were 19 third-graders. Thirteen of them speak English as a second language. Twelve speak only Spanish at home.
Their teacher, Heidi Walling, stood behind them.
"One, two, three. Eyes on me," Maxwell said.
She spoke slowly, raising her eyebrows to get attention, squinting to prompt focus. Browse and give me examples of nonfiction features, she said.
"Excellent. What's a big word for pictures? That you take with a chk-chk?" she said, clicking an imaginary camera.
"Photographs," came the response.
Among other duties, reading coaches model lessons for teachers — collectively, tens of thousands of times per year in Hillsborough alone.
In this case, Walling will play a bigger role in lessons until she takes the reins completely. Maxwell will provide constant feedback. She'll also help Walling assess individual students, determine who needs more help and fashion remedies.
"It's a gradual release of responsibility," said Maxwell, who has been teaching 11 years and coaching four.
"She's the expert," Walling said. "She's teaching me her knowledge."
Reading coaches gained prominence as part of former Gov. Jeb Bush's reading campaign. If national test scores are an indication, the effort is paying off: Between 1998 and 2007, Florida fourth-graders went from the back of the pack to No. 19 in reading, outpacing virtually every other state in change over time.
Researchers say it's difficult to know how much reading coaches have contributed to those gains, given other factors such as accountability and smaller class sizes. But they say there is ample evidence that persistent professional development pays off in better-skilled teachers and smarter kids.
Coaches are paid on the same salary scale as teachers. But the money comes from a combination of state, federal and district sources. The state estimates $162-million was spent on reading coaches last year. By comparison, the state spent $147-million this year to reward schools with good grades.
The federal source is drying up. This year, Congress cut the federal Reading First program, which paid for coaches at high poverty schools, from about $1-billion a year to $393-million. Florida's share was $19-million, down from nearly $60-million a few years ago.
At best, Reading First funding will stay the same next year, said Lefsky. But even then, 318 Florida schools won't get it because they've maxed out the program's six-year limit on grants.
In the meantime, there is no sign that the conditions that led the Legislature to cut school spending this spring will improve for next year's budget.
Pinellas reduced its coaches this year from 109 to 46, far more than any other district. Most of the cut coaches were in middle and high schools. Almost all returned to the classroom
"It was tough for the coaches," said Connie Kolosey, the secondary reading supervisor in Pinellas. "We were moving along, thinking we were doing well. And we were."
Pasco and Hernando kept the same number of coaches. Hillsborough added five.
Mellissa Alonso, who supervises elementary reading coaches in Hillsborough, said if reductions were proposed, principals would "be the first to cry."
The data may show why. The student body at Bing was 75 percent minority last year and 89 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Yet 66 percent of students were reading at grade level, up from 44 percent in 2002.
Supporters hope the coaching program will expand again.
Both Pinellas and Hillsborough were aiming for one coach in every elementary school. Torgesen said there should be at least two in every middle school and even more in some high schools. A high school with one reading coach is like trying to "paddle upstream with a toothpick," he said.
Kolosey said the Pinellas cuts won't be felt right away. Many coaches are gone, but to some extent their skills have been passed on to the teachers they've been coaching. "We're operating on inertia," she said. But "after a little while, that'll lose steam."