Hillsborough school leaders will look outside for answers to their reading riddle

One in four students are reading at the state’s lowest level. A consultant will look for solutions.
Specialist Patti Gonzales, who teaches reading in small groups, works with first grader Markus Barron on his vocabulary at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Tampa on February 6. {OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times ]
Specialist Patti Gonzales, who teaches reading in small groups, works with first grader Markus Barron on his vocabulary at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Tampa on February 6. {OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published May 1, 2019|Updated May 1, 2019

TAMPA - Stung by falling scores and determined to get more students reading, the Hillsborough County School District is poised to bring in outside expertise for a seven-month audit.

On Tuesday, the School Board will vote on a $500,000 contract with Public Consulting Group of Boston.

The move follows months of meetings by a literacy work group that included high-ranking school officials and community representatives. The group convened after third-grade reading proficiency dropped 3 points, from 56 to 53 percent passing, between 2017 and 2018. And while their intentions were good, members of the group were hard-pressed to find solutions inside the district, given the many factors that contribute to poor reading, according to chief academic officer Deborah Cook.

“As a district, we are exploring all options,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “This consultant is one element to make sure we support our teachers and students.”

The proposed action follows an extensive report in the Tampa Bay Times that showed nearly one-fourth of Hillsborough students score in the lowest of five reading levels on state exams. For the last three years, the Times reported, Hillsborough has led the state in the number of schools on the lowest-reading list.

The Times investigation found testing and test preparation classes are causing many students to lose their interest in reading, and that low reading levels are concentrated in schools that, in some cases, have shortages of certified teachers.

The report also explored many contributing factors, including digital entertainment devices and crowded classrooms that prevent children in the youngest years from getting the individual attention they need. However, a proposed contract with the consulting group describes work that will likely be more narrowly focused.

Agenda documents say the audit would include “an overview of student performance” in all elementary schools, “a review of current literacy practices and programmatic strengths,” and “areas for improvement at the district level.”

Surveys, interviews and focus groups will be organized from May to July, coinciding with a thorough review of documents and data.

In September and October, the consultants will “conduct up to 36 classroom observations across a random sampling of the district’s schools,” the proposed contract states. The goal, it says, is to determine “the extent to which the district has a focused and coherent, internally congruent curriculum management system.”

“The consultant will spend time in our classrooms and outside the classrooms talking to teachers to get their feedback, conducting teacher focus groups and doing one-on-one interviews with teachers, staff and administrators,” said Cook, the chief academic officer. “Teacher and administrator input is critical to this process.”

Evan Lefsky, the firm’s director of education consulting, has more than 20 years’ experience as a teacher, school administrator and consultant. He was a turnaround leader for Lake County Schools and executive director of Just Read, Florida!, the state’s content and policy office in reading and literacy. He had a leadership role in developing the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading, known as FAIR.

His work would begin on Wednesday, the day after the School Board vote.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Lefsky said he was limited in what he could say because the contract has not been approved and the work has not yet begun.

“What’s in the board agenda is what we have proposed,” he said. “At this time, I couldn’t say what else we’ll get into. Once we’re official and we’re contracted, then there will be room for more conversation."

He said it also is likely that, during the research and focus group stages, issues will arise that deserve more attention.

“It’s definitely a personal passion area for me,” Lefsky said of reading and literacy. “We’re excited by the opportunity to partner with Hillsborough on this critical work. And I think everybody agrees this is critical work.”

An action plan is expected in December.