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Hillsborough needs better books, clearer direction to boost reading, report says

With some of the worst reading results in Florida, a consultant tells the district where it’s falling short in the classroom.
King Reddick, 11, gets help from reading coach Carmen Mott-Singleton while reading from the book Esperanza Rising at Forest Hill Elementary last month. The school is taking part in a pilot program designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
King Reddick, 11, gets help from reading coach Carmen Mott-Singleton while reading from the book Esperanza Rising at Forest Hill Elementary last month. The school is taking part in a pilot program designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA — Teacher vacancies, reading materials that do not appeal to minority children, and hardships outside school are among the reasons so many Hillsborough County children fail at reading.

And while most teachers say tools exist to help them meet those challenges, that is less often true for new English language learners, gifted children and students with disabilities.

These are among the findings of the first report from a consultant examining literacy in Hillsborough, where a quarter of all students test at the lowest of five reading levels on state exams.

Boston-based Public Consulting Group compared Hillsborough to the state and other counties using criteria similar to what the Tampa Bay Times used in an investigative report on April 17. The company looked at the percentage of students scoring at Level 1 in reading, which indicates severe deficiencies, and at those who scored at Levels 3 and above, which means they passed their state exams.

RELATED STORY: Struggling students are everywhere, but why does Hillsborough County have so many of them?

The consultant found Hillsborough’s Level 1 percentages between 2017 and 2019 in grades three through five were almost always higher than than the state’s, by as many as five points. In Levels 3 and above, Hillsborough children were up to six points worse than the state.

Poor, minority and learning disabled students fared worse. And “despite the best efforts of Hillsborough County educators, there has been minimal evidence of improvement in closing proficiency gaps in the three year comparison,” the consultant’s report said.

The consultant asked more than 2,000 teachers, reading specialists and administrators what is getting in the way of successful reading instruction.

Teachers said there are not enough complex texts or culturally relevant materials in the schools. Nor is there equity in how materials are distributed.

“Schools with more resources (PTA, etc.) are able to buy different curriculum resources,” the report said.

WANT TO READ THE FULL REPORT? It’s here.

Teachers noted that writing instruction stops in January, as the state tests are about to begin.

The report also identified inconsistencies in the district’s vision for literacy instruction, its expectations for classroom environment and in how to build a love of reading.

Teacher vacancies and teacher turnover get in the way of instruction, especially at high-needs schools, the consultant found. Many teachers are reluctant to take jobs at high needs schools because of the state’s job evaluation system, which is based on student test scores.

The shortages were so bad last year that reading coaches had to fill in for classroom teachers. The district responded to that problem with a salary bonus for those who teach in Hillsborough’s 50 “Achievement" schools, which receive extra attention.

In the Achievement schools, however, teachers described “additional challenges including homelessness, hunger, violence in the homes and need for more support in order to be successful in the classroom.” Students move from home to home and from school to school, and inconsistency in instruction makes it hard for them to acclimate.

Teachers also told the consultant that principals in the Achievement group are “transferred to different schools too frequently to build community and implement lasting instructional change."

The consultant recommended better use of a strategy called the “multi-tiered system of support,” in which problem-solving teams pull together departments to meet the needs of students in distress. This process should happen at the school and district levels, the consultant wrote, with a focus on literacy.

The report “confirms some things that we felt like, as a district team, we needed to work on," said Debbie Cook, Hillsborough’s chief academic officer. "I think the fact that our teachers are working so hard to find the right materials, the right methods and the right way to do things was very clear in the report. And it’s our duty to be able to purchase those materials for them, get feedback from them and make sure we are supporting the teachers.”

The Times, in its report, found many other factors that contributed to students’ reading struggles, some completely outside the scope of the state or its school districts. These included the easy availability of electronic entertainment that students prefer to books.

But other issues are well within the school system’s control.

Students told the Times they became discouraged in the higher elementary grades when they were required to read more non-fiction materials to prepare for state tests. In middle school, many said they were consigned to tedious remedial reading classes that took the pleasure out of reading. By high school, many were more focused on passing a test to earn their diploma than on reading for its own sake.

The Times report also noted that, to save money during a budget crisis, the district caused some classes to become more crowded in the earliest grades, where children first learn to read.

As the consultant continues its work, Hillsborough is experimenting in some schools with systems that include Expeditionary Learning, a Harvard-affiliated reading and writing program that has shown promising results elsewhere. The district also spent $1.34 million last year in federal grant funds to stock classroom libraries in the Achievement schools with books considered culturally relevant.

Hillsborough was not alone among large districts struggling to teach children how to read. Equal rates of third-grade Level 1 reading were found in Duval County, which now rivals Hillsborough for another statistic — the most schools on the state’s lowest-reading list. In grades four and five, numbers worse than Hillsborough’s were found in Duval, Polk and Orange.

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