Friday, November 24, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: As scores go from bad to worse, no time to waste

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It takes time to turn around a school, but elementary school students who are struggling to read don't have that luxury. They need help now — from the schools, their parents and the community. Third-grade FCAT reading scores are out, and they continue to paint a grim picture at five of St. Petersburg's most challenged elementary schools.

As this chart shows, the numbers were bad last year. But at three of those schools, they got substantially worse this year — and this happened after some of them underwent sweeping interventions required when the state deems a school to be failing.

Third grade is a key moment in a young reader's development, and students not reading at grade level are at great risk of being left behind forever.

It takes more than a dedicated principal and a committed staff. Look at Melrose Elementary, the county's poorest elementary school, which is in the midst of its turnaround plan. Its veteran principal, Nanette Grasso, is completing her first year at the school. She is sharp and dedicated, and she hand-picked most of her staff. Before the school year started, she made a simple promise to the community served by her school: "We won't let you down."

But despite her efforts and those of her teachers, the portion of Melrose third-graders reading at grade level dropped by half. That reflects the depth of the problem and how real progress at these St. Petersburg elementary schools will take a communitywide effort. Here's the hard math: At just these five schools, 250 third-graders tested at the lowest level on FCAT reading, which the state defines as "inadequate level of success." Translation: They cannot really read, and they won't advance to fourth grade until they demonstrate they can.

Between creating extra summer classes and adding more instruction time during the school year, Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego is trying to meet the challenge. But it will take even more effort from a school system that has to redouble its efforts to enlist help from businesses and the greater community. This is an issue larger than the school district.

These five schools again had reading performance that fell far below any traditional elementary school in Hillsborough County, which has many schools facing similar economic challenges. They also had by far the worst reading performance among other Pinellas traditional schools. Perhaps this is a situation similar to a football team changing coaching staffs and installing a new system. Change takes time. But too many 8-year-olds in these St. Petersburg elementaries are struggling to read, and they don't have time for a long turnaround.

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