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Reading program repaired

Three months after acknowledging major flaws in a highly regarded program for struggling readers, Pinellas County school officials say everything is now on track and working properly.

Curriculum superintendent Harry Brown told School Board members Tuesday that Read 180, a system the district has poured millions into since 1999, no longer is plagued with the glitches that had rendered it useless in scores of classrooms.

"Everything is virtually new compared to where we were last year," Brown told the board, likening the difference to a before-and-after ad or a page from A Tale of Two Cities. "I'm glad that we're on track."

And while the "real test" of how well the program is working will come over the next 12 months, Brown said he is convinced the fixes the district has made - with help from Scholastic Inc., the company that developed Read 180 - ultimately will result in measurable student gains.

Brown said those improvements include a concerted effort to train teachers, close attention to making sure the correct students are in Read 180 classes and a $900,000 software upgrade that Scholastic Inc. discounted by about $11,000.

Scholastic Inc. president Margery Meyer sat next to Brown during the 20-minute presentation Tuesday and echoed his assurances to the board.

"We've had trainers and technicians here for more than 25 business days since September," Meyer said. "That's what we promised you we'd do, and that's what we've been doing."

Several board members, including Jane Gallucci and Carol Cook, praised Scholastic for its efforts to correct the problems.

"I think we've come a long way," Gallucci said. "I want to thank Scholastic for stepping up to the plate."

Linda Lerner also thanked Scholastic, but noted the company was "giving us what we deserved from the beginning."

"This is a model we're paying top dollar for," Lerner said. "The model wasn't being followed for the most part because the technology was down."

The problems with Read 180 came to light last summer after an internal study revealed that the program, introduced to 19 schools in 1999 and expanded to 75 schools last year, had been managed so poorly that no one knew whether it was working for the approximately 3,000 students using it.

The study found that both the district and Scholastic were to blame for the fact that only a fraction of the district's 128 Read 180 classrooms were following the program's model. Some children had been improperly placed in the program, and some classes were scheduled for time slots that fell short of the prescribed 90 minutes of instruction.

Perhaps most frustrating for Read 180 instructors, the survey indicated, were computer problems that often went unsolved for weeks or months, prompting them to resort to teaching methods that were not part of the highly structured curriculum.

Brown said many of the computer problems could be traced to the loss several years ago of school-based technology specialists. But recently trained support and help desk teams now will be able to troubleshoot Read 180 issues, he said.

And stepped-up teacher training and the addition of Read 180 coordinators and coaches will ensure that all Read 180 instructors will use the program properly, Brown said.