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Low-performing Pasco schools aim to add hour of reading in same class time

LACOOCHEE — Even before the directive arrived, principal Latoya Jordan intended to add more reading to her students' day at Lacoochee Elementary.

Her plan called for stragglers to get a half-hour of daily remediation while high achievers receive enrichment.

Then she learned that Lacoochee, which improved its state grade from D to one point shy of B, had landed on the state's list of 300 lowest-performing schools in reading. That triggered a state mandate to provide 60 minutes of daily reading instruction on top of what students already got.

But when the Pasco School District set its school bell schedules for 2014-15, the start and end times for Lacoochee hadn't changed. The same was true for the district's two other elementary schools on the lowest 300 list, Cox and Gulfside.

Hoping to avoid paying an estimated $975,000 for additional bus routes and teacher time, Pasco district and school leaders said they will infuse the lessons into the existing class day — not extend it.

"You can use your school day more effectively and efficiently to make this happen," said Rayann Mitchell, a senior supervisor in the district's Office of Teaching and Learning. "We're looking at every single minute of the school day. We have easily found an hour."

The question remains whether that's acceptable.

Florida law states the schools must "provide an additional hour of instruction beyond the normal school day for each day of the entire school year for intensive reading instruction."

Department of Education memos to districts explain that schools may provide the lessons at any time, but any plan must result in 60 extra minutes of instruction for any student who didn't earn a 5 on FCAT reading.

Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg said lawmakers intended more time learning in class.

"The idea was that perhaps in some of these schools they could benefit from an extended school day," he said.

Lawmakers didn't write any accountability system into the law, though. The Department of Education has no specific authority to monitor how districts implement the extra hour (unlike other programs where districts must submit plans and get approval).

"It is the districts' responsibility to adhere to the law as approved by the Legislature," DOE spokesman Joe Follick said.

Other districts, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, have extended the days of their schools on the list.

"It's expensive," Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "But of course you have to do it."

The requirement means juggling transportation schedules and reorganizing staff time. The state pays for the program through its supplementary academic instruction and reading funds. Busing costs extra.

This year Hillsborough plans to add four weeks of classes to the 24 schools on the list, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.

Pinellas schools are changing bell times at schools on the list, cutting back in other areas, spokeswoman Donna Winchester said.

Pasco officials are still working on the details.

One of their first inclinations was to limit the cost.

Transportation department schedulers determined that adding a half-hour to the day would cost $6,200 at Lacoochee and $7,500 at Gulfside.

An added hour of teacher time beyond the 7.5-hour day, meanwhile, would cost about $963,000 for the three schools. And that was before any contract negotiations took place.

"This is the kicker right here: big money," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd wrote in a note to superintendent Kurt Browning.

Dollar signs in mind, planners began to seek other alternatives. They found a few districts that had reconfigured existing time and found that model appealing.

"We are not cutting lunch," Mitchell emphasized.

Instead, the schools are considering changes to the timing of physical education classes and looking at better ways to integrate reading into other subjects.

At Lacoochee, the extra reading time Jordan had planned would be absorbed into the new model.

"We're just adding 60 extra minutes to our reading block," she said. "We had 90. We were going to have 120. Now because of this we will have 150."

Mitchell said none of the district's plans are cemented.

"We don't have all the bugs worked out," she said. "We absolutely want to do what's best for kids. We have to figure out how to manage it."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

Low-performing Pasco schools aim to add hour of reading in same class time 07/23/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 7:35pm]
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