BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County third-graders' scores on a crucial state reading test took a downturn this year, a surprise for officials after several years of gains. The portion of students passing the Florida Standards Assessment language arts test dropped to below 60 percent. And the portion that faced retention because of low performance grew to nearly one-fifth of the test-takers.
Even before the downturn, Superintendent John Stratton said in an interview last month, the district was exploring ways to make its students better readers, with a particular focus on early literacy.
On Tuesday, the School Board approved spending more than $350,000 for two programs it hopes will help the district move in the right direction.
About $68,000 of that will pay for a year's worth of services from Footsteps2Brilliance, an early-learning focused tech company based in Washington, D.C. The app-based program, which already has a foothold in other Florida counties, uses books and games to help kids from infancy through third grade build literacy, Lois Page, a regional director for the company, told the School Board this month.
It's a chance for "creating that culture around early literacy," said Gina Michalicka, the district's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
The School Board's investment this year puts the program in five elementary schools: Moton, Brooksville, Pine Grove, Westside and Spring Hill. Siblings of students at those schools can use the program for free.
But Footsteps2Brilliance is built to expand. If the district likes the app, it can purchase it for more schools and partner with other community entities to help with the cost, such as libraries or the Chamber of Commerce.
If the district commits to five years of the app, it'll pay nothing for it after those years, and every child in the county will have access to it.
That's how it's worked in Osceola County, where Page said kids have gone from being kindergarten-ready only 11 percent of the time to 49 percent of the time since it invested in the program.
A former middle-school reading teacher, Page told the School Board that early learning helps prevent kids from falling behind later in school.
"By the time I got those kids, they already had a three-, four-, five-year gap," she said. "I shudder to think what happened to some of those kids we tried really hard to help."
Michalicka said she doesn't expect the program to be a single solution to reading woes, but she believed it was worth trying the pilot year.
School Board members were enthusiastic, with Kay Hatch saying she was in favor of "spending the preventative dollars up front, rather than the added cost of remediation down the road."
The second program approved by the board, with a price tag of nearly $300,000, is Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, a training program that promises to give teachers sharper skills based on science behind how kids learn how to read. In a presentation to the board earlier this month, representatives from the program said teachers can be more effective if they understand how the brain works and how language is structured — the fundamentals that underlay writing and spelling.
Michalicka said the program will be the primary training focus for kindergarten and first-grade teachers this year.
Board chair Susan Duval said she was "over the top" about the research.
"It helps so much," she said. "And it gives teachers the opportunity to take their skill sets and really pop it wide open to help these kids."
Contact Jack Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JackHEvans.