Last June, nine months before they would fill in circles on answer sheets for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a boisterous group of soon-to-be fourth-graders at Spring Hill Elementary School got excited about shapes of a different sort.
The students waited eagerly for teacher Melinda Barrett to make the next call during the game of "shape bingo." They shouted with glee and slapped colorful triangles, circles and squares onto their game cards.
Though it took place in classrooms, the summer program definitely felt like camp, not school. But Barrett and her colleagues hope the fun will translate to performance when students sit down to take the FCAT this week.
"It really was a time for them to get comfortable with some math concepts and hopefully build their interest in math and their confidence," Barrett said.
Spring Hill Elementary paid for the camp with $47,000 in Title I funding. The federal dollars are funneled to schools with high poverty rates for additional teachers and programs to raise student achievement. Hernando's 10 Title I schools shared $3.1 million this year, a figure that has stayed mostly static in recent years.
Statistics show that the seven elementary schools and three middle schools are making the extra dollars count.
Even as the number of poor students has climbed, nearly all of Hernando's Title I schools can boast an upward trend in performance in the last six years. The number of students performing at or above grade level in reading and math — scoring a 3 or above on the FCAT — is generally increasing.
Last year, six schools earned A grades in Florida's accountability system based on those scores. The other four earned Bs. Those grades mean even the lowest-performing students are making learning gains.
The state's new evaluation system uses the same tough standards as the federal government, so the stakes are as high as ever. Hernando's Title I schools have plenty more work to do, said Diane Dannemiller, the district's federal programs supervisor.
But Dannemiller, who has watched the Title I program and the accountability standards evolve during 26 years on the job, said the Hernando schools that face the biggest challenges have made plenty of progress and show the promise of continued gains.
"They're doing wonderfully," she said.
Children from poor families often face tough circumstances that can affect academic performance, study after study has shown.
They have higher risk of suffering abuse, neglect or malnourishment. Their parents are more likely to be young, single and uneducated and less likely to reinforce the importance of homework. Even children of the most attentive parents can be sidetracked by the uncertainty of a hand-to-mouth existence.
In Hernando, the number of students from poor or very-low-income families began to rise well before the economy started its downward spiral.
Six years ago, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in the Title I schools ranged from 51 to 69 percent. The average rate among all the schools was 56 percent.
By last year, the range had climbed to 59 to 78 percent, with an average of 67 percent. Half of the Title I schools have seen double-digit increases.
Now families are struggling through a brutal recession, and schools must take a more active role to provide a stable, healthy learning environment, officials say.
"The children need to have their basic needs met," said Beverly Chapin, principal at Eastside Elementary. The school, in the Hill 'n Dale development, east of Brooksville, has the highest poverty rate in the district at 78 percent.
The district has pushed to get more children to take advantage of the free and reduced-cost breakfast program. Schools host clothing swaps so families can provide uniforms without worrying about the budget. And because one of the tools of Title I is extra time during the summer and after school, some of the extra funding has been used to provide additional bus service.
At Spring Hill Elementary, grandparents raising students have their own support group, said principal Marvin Gordon. The school's free and reduced-price lunch rate has jumped 15 percentage points in six years.
Still, Gordon marvels at the children's ability to focus.
"Despite the circumstances our students may be facing," he said, "they come to school on a regular basis, and they want to learn."
Benefits of technology
Five days a week, students at Brooksville Elementary take a seat at computer terminals and work on a program designed to reinforce lessons in the classroom. Fifteen minutes of reading, 15 of math, and the program won't advance to the next lesson until the student has mastered a skill.
The SuccessMaker software by Pearson Education, bought with Title I money a few years ago, lives up to its name by helping hone the skills students need to perform well on the FCAT, said Brooksville principal Mary LeDoux.
"If you do it with fidelity, you get amazing results," LeDoux said.
Ask a Hernando teacher or administrator about the reasons for improving performance in Title I schools — indeed, for the general success of the district as a whole — and their answer will typically include the words "data" and "technology."
Most of the Title I money goes to pay for salaries of teachers and staffers who spend extra time with students during and after school or as part of programs like Spring Hill Elementary's summer camp. Using those staff resources effectively, however, means tailoring programs to the academic needs at each school, based on constant monitoring of data to find out which students need extra help and in what subjects.
"I think we've made significant gains in the fact that data is shared in a common language," said Diane Spoelma, the Title I lead teacher at Spring Hill Elementary.
The district uses Web-based software to track progress at the school level and down to the individual student. This time of year, teachers' desks and computer screens are awash in red, yellow and green progress charts.
The software, called Aim-Hi, has been in place for a few years now, but is being used more effectively since the district stepped up training for teachers, said Linda Peirce, the district's testing specialist. Assessment teachers at each school help dissect the data.
"I think there's been a lot of effort to take it that next step," Peirce said. "These things allow the classroom teacher the information and more time to differentiate their instruction based on needs of the class and of the individual students."
The parents' role
One Friday evening last month, families showed up at Parrott Middle School in Brooksville and then went their separate ways.
The students headed to the cafeteria to dance the evening away; the parents sat down in the media center to learn strategies to bolster their child's reading skills.
During the event, dubbed "Dancing into Literacy," Parrott staffers put remote controls in parents' hands and tested their new knowledge with a Jeopardy-like, answer-and-question game.
Title I schools are required by federal law to keep parents informed about the progress of their children and of the school as a whole. Parent centers at the schools offer resources through an open-door policy. But schools also have lots of room to get creative with events like Parrott's.
The challenge is often in getting parents to show up.
Only about 10 parents actually stayed for the Parrott event, while many more dropped off their children for the dance and left, principal Leechelle Booker said. Parrott's Title I teacher is aggressive, she said, seeking out parents at events like basketball games to get some face time.
"We need them to be a part of the crusade to make our students more successful," Booker said.
There are signs the effort may be working: Parrott currently has a waiting list for its extended-school program.
While scores are generally on the rise, a deeper look into the data shows where Title I schools have room for improvement.
The annual school report cards based on FCAT scores show how the various groups at schools are performing. They include ethnic groups, the economically disadvantaged and disabled students.
At Parrott, the overall percentages of students performing at or above grade level in reading and math were in the low 60s last year. But for the school's 111 black students, those percentages remained in the 30s.
At Moton Elementary, where nearly three-quarters of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, roughly four in 10 of the economically disadvantaged students fell short of grade-level benchmarks in both reading and math.
And at Fox Chapel Elementary, half of the school's 500 needy students did not perform at grade level in reading and math.
The learning gains made by these groups dictate whether a school makes "adequate yearly progress" in Florida's differentiated accountability system. Created in 2008 to marry the state and federal benchmarks, the system looks at the subgroups to determine whether a school is officially "in need of improvement." If so, schools are placed on one of five tiers, with more aggressive sanctions required at each level.
Eight of Hernando's 10 Title I schools are currently on one of the first three tiers. Few of the state's Title I schools, however, are not considered to be in need of improvement.
The system can be frustrating for school officials because the bar raises each year and often only a handful of students in each group can make or break the school's performance.
But Westside Elementary is poised to get off the list, and the other schools are generally maintaining or improving their subgroup scores, Dannemiller said. In most cases, economically disadvantaged students have met standards in reading, math or both in the last two years.
LeDoux, the Brooksville Elementary principal, laughed when asked how she was feeling about this year's FCAT.
She acknowledged that this time of year brings a wrenching mix of confidence and anxiety. In recent years, pride and relief have come once the scores were released.
"Students always rise to the level of expectations," LeDoux said. "I'll tell you what my teachers are telling me: They're cautiously optimistic."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.