TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins has an ambitious new goal. He wants more students to be proficient in reading.
"I think it is the code to crack," Eakins said in an interview.
He also told the School Board on Tuesday that he is aiming to get all students reading at grade level by third grade — which, if successful, would be nearly double the current rate of 53 percent.
Much like his vow two years ago to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020, Eakins hopes his emphasis on reading will bear fruit.
He has directed his chief academic officer, Debbie Cook, to assemble an advisory council of teachers, experts and school leaders, and expects the group to begin meeting by the end of the month.
The reading initiative coincides with other efforts that could help the district reach this goal. Eakins has been working with community organizations to bring early childhood education programs into under-enrolled elementary schools, with the hope that kindergarten students will be better prepared as a result.
A separate group, headed by assistant superintendent Tricia McManus, is designing a system of support for 50 "Achievement" schools, chosen because of their low state grades and disappointing student test results.
Reading is the common denominator in both the kindergarten readiness rate and the low state scores.
Year after year, Hillsborough has more schools on the state's "lowest reading" list than any other district, even those with larger populations.
The third-grade Florida Standards Assessment reading results, the first to arrive for 2018, showed a 3-point drop in proficiency, from 56 to 53 percent. Statewide, this year's percentage was 56, a 1-point drop.
Twenty-three percent of Hillsborough's third-graders were reading at Level 1, the lowest, compared with 20 percent statewide.
And large disparities remain between high-poverty elementary schools such as Potter, Booker T. Washington and Broward, where 15 percent of students read at grade level, and schools such as Westchase and Bevis, which are in more affluent communities and have proficiency levels as high as 90 percent.
It's clear, Eakins said, that economics and preparation are major factors.
"Our teachers are juggling a lot," he said.
"We have to recognize that their world is very challenged. They may get some students who are ready, or somewhat ready. But their kindergarten students may not have a lot of skills at all in accessing the curriculum. For one student, it might be a phonetics issue. For another, they have never even had access to print."
The question is how to overcome these disparities and deficiencies.
Eakins said he hopes to get ideas from the advisory council.
"I think our teachers probably know what they need to do more of, that maybe we're not providing them that permission, to say, 'you can do more of that.' Maybe it's resources. I think we should allow for honesty in that room."
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The group might convince him that students who take the FSA tests, which begin in third grade, are getting a disproportionate share of resources to the detriment of those in the younger grades.
Some products might be found to be ineffective, and discarded.
Eakins also wondered if part of the disparity in scores has to do with test-taking skills.
"You may sit with a child and they may be reading fine," he said. "But now they have to demonstrate on an assessment."
Eakins said he is encouraged by the response to his "90 by 20" graduation goal. Systematically, school leaders found new ways for students to take alternative tests and recover credits they were lacking to earn their diplomas. The graduation rate rose from 76 percent in 2015 to 82.9 percent in 2017.
"You talk about the tenacity that has gone into that work," Eakins said.
"I'm looking forward to what they come out of that advisory group with," he said. "I think we should listen."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol