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Reading experiment takes root in Forest Hills

A pilot program, if successful, could boost reading enjoyment and test scores
 
Jasmine Dominguez (cq) completes her worksheet while reading a chapter from the book Esperanza Rising as part of her class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills.
Jasmine Dominguez (cq) completes her worksheet while reading a chapter from the book Esperanza Rising as part of her class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Sept. 24, 2019

TAMPA — Jessica Morgan moves around the classroom, her voice washing over the fifth grade students in soothing tones.

"You've got this. You've prepared for this. You know what you're doing. Remember, refer to the board if you are stuck."

Morgan is taking the children to a place that is new for Forest Hills Elementary, a curriculum that combines reading and writing and a system of values known in school-speak as “social emotional learning.”

She wants them to feel free to take risks.

But the teachers are also taking a risk, as much as their principal reassures them it is one worth taking.

Aaron Corrales, 10, left, talks with his fifth-grade teacher Jessica Morgan about the book Esperanza Rising as part of the class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills.
Aaron Corrales, 10, left, talks with his fifth-grade teacher Jessica Morgan about the book Esperanza Rising as part of the class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Forest Hills, once one of the lowest-performing schools in the Hillsborough district for reading, is among nine that have adopted Expeditionary Learning, a reading and writing curriculum that, if successful, could get the school’s 736 children closer to grade-level literacy skills.

Using $1 million in federal grant money, the district purchased materials and put teachers through training that began in the summer.

Now they are working their way through classroom exercises and assessments, meeting in 7 a.m. sessions to make sure they understand the system and how to make the most of it in their classrooms.

The pilot is an example of steps Hillsborough district leaders are taking, while they await the results of a district-wide literacy audit, to have fewer children reading at Level 1, the lowest of five in the state testing system.

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In 2018, more than half the children at Forest Hills tested at Level 1. The school had its second consecutive D that year, following an F in 2016.

Principal Rachael O’Dea joined the school in June 2018. She has earned high marks from supervisors in the district’s Achievement Schools program, which aims at improving results at 50 struggling schools. Only 41 percent of Forest Hills students were Level 1 readers in 2019, and the school earned a C.

O’Dea said that in her first year, she put a lot of energy into behavior, something educators typically refer to with words like “culture” and “climate.” More than 90 percent of the school’s students are classified as low income, based on free lunch statistics. “Kids have factors, right?” O’Dea said. "There’s a lot of stress.”

The neighborhood also has attracted immigrant families, most recently from Guatemala and Honduras. Within the classrooms, English for Speakers of Other Languages teachers work with groups of children. Teachers look for opportunities to get bilingual students involved in class discussions to help boost the confidence of those just learning the language.

Expeditionary Learning, known as “EL,” is a joint venture of Harvard University and Outward Bound. Its lessons move seamlessly between fiction and non-fiction, reading and writing. There is a strong social action component, with the belief that character lessons should be woven into academic work instead of taught separately.

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The fifth grade is reading Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan’s sixth-grade level novel about a well-to-do Mexican family who are forced to move to California during the Great Depression, and find themselves living the more humble life of agricultural laborers.

“I like the character Esperanza," said Mercedes Calixto, 11, as she completed an essay in class. "She keeps trying and doesn’t give up, even though things are getting hard for her. She keeps trying to help people out even though she has to help out her family, but she still gives to other people who have treated her bad.”

Tyanaliz Gonzalez, 10, right, completes her worksheet while reading a chapter from the book Esperanza Rising as part of her class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills.
Tyanaliz Gonzalez, 10, right, completes her worksheet while reading a chapter from the book Esperanza Rising as part of her class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [ Times (2019) ]

The attention to character does not end with lessons from the books.

In one of many exercises designed to keep the students engaged instead of passive, they critique each other’s work. That doesn’t happen until they get a lot of formal instruction in how to be kind and constructive.

They are to praise things their partners do correctly. And if something is not correct, Morgan tells them to draw a heart, which signifies “something that your partner could improve to make us love it even more.”

It is too early to know if the work under way at Forest Hill will translate into higher scores on the Florida Standards Assessment, a measure that can result in accolades or harsh action from the state.

For now, teachers and students are working their way through exercises that, for some, will stretch their abilities.

“Some of us are getting upset that we’re not finished, or we did not follow directions 100 percent,” Morgan tells the children after they write an essay about a character’s reaction in Esperanza Rising.

“Do I look upset? I’m not upset. I expected you to have trouble with this. It’s okay. So everybody take a deep breath. Let it out. It is okay.”