Beverly Bowden-Humbert is ready for the war on FCAT.
Outfitted in Army fatigues, a whistle dangling from her neck, the writing resource teacher barks questions to her privates — Robles Elementary fourth-graders who have volunteered to come to school on a Saturday.
Students who give wrong answers do push-ups.
The impromptu exercise gives them a brain break while driving home the lesson during an intense four-hour boot camp designed to sharpen writing skills and boost test scores.
It's part of the Hillsborough County School District's Saturday Academies, a state-funded program for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who are struggling with reading, writing and math.
For many, it's the last chance to learn all they can before taking the mandatory Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the first of which begins Tuesday.
The boot camps are "very productive,'' Bowden-Humbert said.
During the regular school day, her kids receive an hour of writing instruction. On Saturday, they get nearly four hours.
"I can see a better outcome,'' the teacher said. "Last year, kids in writing camp got 6s'' — the highest they could earn on the FCAT.
A lot rides on the standardized testing:
• Scores help the district determine whether some students can progress to the next grade or if a teacher has performed effectively.
• Results establish overall school grades, which the state uses to provide high-performing schools with money that goes toward equipment, teacher bonuses and school celebrations. Hillsborough schools received more than $8 million last school year, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
• Performance is the basis for a new statewide ranking of school districts created by Gov. Rick Scott's office. Hillsborough tied at 38th with Hernando County, according to figures released last month.
Saturday Academies are "an investment,'' said Sherry Ogden, a district elementary education supervisor. "And we want a return on our investment.''
The extra effort paid off last year, school officials said. Hillsborough's fourth-graders led the state in writing, as 90 percent of students taking the test scored a 4 or better on a scale of 1 to 6.
Two standout schools were Sulphur Springs Elementary, with 99 percent of students scoring a 4 or better, and Tampa's Just Elementary, with 93 percent hitting the mark.
Both have Saturday Academies.
At Robles, fourth-grade writing scores jumped in 2010 from 83 percent earning at least a 3 — what the state deems proficient — to 98 percent last year.
The funding process
The district receives state funding — $37.8 million in 2011-12 — for the voluntary academies and other remedial help, including tutoring programs before, during and after the regular school day.
The additional dollars are earmarked for Title I schools, those with high percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
Saturday Academies typically start after winter break and end before the first FCAT, which is the writing portion.
Some schools hold academies in the fall, though, and others offer them year-round, said Daryl Saunders, another elementary education supervisor with the district.
"Each school does it differently,'' she said, with budgets tied to individual school improvement plans. "It's an extra opportunity.''
The money only pays salaries of teachers, who select students for the extra instruction based on their academic performance.
Schools must find other means to pay for meals and incentives, like toys or school supplies, to entice students to attend — and their parents to bring them.
At Robles, a "C'' school northeast of Tampa where 97 percent of the school's 686 students qualify for free or discounted lunches, about 150 students were invited to attend Saturday Academy.
About 50 kids regularly show up, assistant principal Donald Link said. Many come from single-parent homes. Some live with cousins, grandparents or other relatives.
"They want to learn,'' Link said. "We don't turn anyone away.''
Eight-year-old Perrionia Boyd comes because she likes the extra attention.
Schnaida Joseph, 9, likes teaching her peers what she learns.
"They teach you stuff your classmates don't know that you can teach them,'' the fifth-grader said.
Third-grade teacher Taushi Maultsby relishes any chance to spend more time on math with her students.
"I just want my kids to succeed and I can't get to all of this in a week,'' said Maultsby, who teaches an all-girls class at the school. "I'll sleep in the summer.''
At a recent academy, she and co-teacher Jackie Bogen spent nearly two hours explaining improper and regular fractions.
"I hadn't planned on doing this for so long, but they really don't get this,'' Maultsby said. "When you have a teachable moment, you stick with it.''
Another reason to like Saturday Academy: Bonnie James' hot breakfasts.
Each week, the mother of Robles music teacher Shenita Washington volunteers to bring the kids waffles, sausage patties, scrambled eggs, juice and milk.
"I love Robles,'' said James, who pays for the food with donations through her charity, Kingdom Kids of Tampa Bay.
Her reward, she said, is watching the children eat well.
"You can just see in the kids' eyes there are a lot of needs,'' James said. "They are very appreciative.''
So are parents like Shy Williams, who drives her son, Tray-Riveo Callaway, to school each Saturday.
"He loves it. He volunteers for it,'' she said. "And I'm seeing a difference with his grades.''
James Simmons, whose stepdaughter has participated in the academy for two years, said every child should come on Saturday.
"Kids need it today,'' said the 33-year-old dishwasher, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade. "The FCAT is much harder.''