Ramona Denmark remembers how she felt when her son's teacher told her he needed to be retained in the first grade.
He wasn't reading as he needed to be reading, they told her. He needed one more year.
"It was like a shocker for me," said Denmark, whose older daughter had excelled at the same school years before.
Now, Ramona Denmark and her mother are part of a vocal group pressuring Pinellas County educators to improve reading instruction in struggling public schools.
Members of Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, an alliance of 38 churches, synagogues and mosques, think a teaching method called "direct instruction" would be crucial in improving reading skills among the Pinellas County School District's poorest and poorest performing kids.
So far, they've met with little support.
"I have real issues with pushing programs on schools," said board member Janet Clark, a former teacher who said she has used direct instruction before.
As promoted by the National Institute for Direct Instruction in Eugene, Ore., the concept revolves around highly prescribed lessons and intense review designed to ensure students master concepts as they go.
FAST is calling on superintendent John Stewart and the School Board members to pilot the instructional method as part of the core curriculum in 20 schools "that are failing horrendously," said the Rev. Robert Ward, pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
The schools were chosen both for their students' FCAT reading scores and because they are in communities where their members live, he said. Most of the schools have high percentages of minority students and those who get a free or reduced-price lunch.
"Too many children in our county cannot read," Ward said.
In 2011, the state Department of Education set a standard requiring Florida schools to have 79 percent of their students in each subgroup proficient in reading. The district average is 74 percent.
A 2011 national study of 4,000 students over time found that students who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers.
FAST estimates the cost to adopt direct instruction would be $75,000 to $100,000 per year. However, the group has said the National Institute for Direct Instruction has agreed to pilot the reading program at no cost for one school for three years.
Topping the list of schools where FAST would like to see direct instruction used is Melrose Elementary, where Denmark's son, Zachary Stewart, attended until the sixth grade.
The school has seen reading scores on the FCAT standardized test drop every year since 2006, from 56 percent of students reading at or above grade level to 34 percent in 2011.
Denmark said that over her son's school career at Melrose, she started to lose faith. The interventions offered to Zachary struck her as being too little, too late.
She applied for a tax credit voucher awarded to low-income families and enrolled Zachary at Academy Prep of St. Petersburg, a program that aims to give students like him intensive support through small, single-sex classes and 11-hour school days.
His family and principal say Zachary has excelled.
"I just couldn't allow Zachary to be a statistic that black males can't achieve," Denmark said.
Ward and members of FAST's education committee say it's past time for the school district to change its approach for students like Zachary.
The group's effort was sparked by a 2010 report that found Pinellas County had the lowest graduation rate for African-American boys in the nation: 21 percent. District leaders at the time complained that the formula used was oversimplified and said the actual figure was 57.5 percent.
Either way, Ward said, the number is concerning.
He said FAST members visited schools in Baltimore and Atlanta where direct instruction appears to be improving test scores.
Stewart said direct instruction is already available in Pinellas as a supplemental program to teachers who think it could work as an intervention with their students. He's not ready to mandate it be used as a core program. Reading, he said, is the No. 1 concern for district leaders. But he doesn't agree that the method should be used as a core program for all schools.
Clark agreed. "It's not good for all kids," she said. "All kids don't need it."
Board members Terry Krassner and Linda Lerner also said they have concerns about the approach. Krassner said she asked the group to give her an example of a Florida school that has had success with direct instruction. And Lerner said that although she supports it as a supplemental program, she stops short of agreeing to make it a core curriculum.
New board member Glenton Gilzean Jr. said he also wants to know more about how the program could fit into Florida's educational landscape. But his response offered the group a glimmer of hope. He said he's especially interested to explore whether it would be applicable at the preschool level. "I'm doing some more homework," he said.
FAST is known for its annual "Nehemiah Action Assembly," during which members call on public officials to answer yes or no questions and publicly commit to support certain policy stances before about 3,000 members of churches, synagogues and mosques from throughout the county.
"It's just a very awkward, awkward situation we're put in," Clark said.
Despite the lackluster buy-in FAST has gotten from district leaders on the matter, the group is pressing forward.
The Rev. Ward said he feels as though there is "organized resistance" to the program and senses what he calls a "lack of concern for a certain group of schools in a certain part of the county made up of certain demographics."
Still, at 7 p.m. Monday during the 2012 Nehemiah Action Assembly at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks Beach, FAST members will formally ask those School Board members who attend to move forward with direct instruction as a core curriculum.
Lerner said she for one will be there, but on that particular question, she'll have to say no.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]