NEW PORT RICHEY — Seven Springs Elementary principal Todd Cluff sat comfortably in his home on a Sunday evening, holding a picture book. A video camera clicked on, and Cluff read singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s words from Forever Young, "May your wishes all come true, may you always do for others and let others do for you."
He turned the book to show the illustrations on the school’s first live Facebook post of Seven Springs Shark Tales on August 19.
Who was watching? It was hard to say, but Cluff hoped children from his school were tuned in. He believes story-sharing is a step toward encouraging them to read.
"How do we bring back pieces of literacy that have been lost over time?" Cluff asked, knowing a missing part is reading aloud. Then the Shark Tales idea surfaced.
Jim Trelease, educator and author of the best-seller, The Read-Aloud Handbook, says reading to children increases comprehension, builds vocabulary, enhances imagination and builds a desire in children to read — benefits that lay a powerful learning foundation.
Within a few days, the first Shark Tale had more than 3,000 views. Teachers asked when they could read, but next up on Aug. 26 was assistant principal Lynn Albert reading Enemy Pie by Derek Munson.
Cluff includes the power of reading in his "Jasper Standard," a term named for his 3-year-old grandson.
"I want for every child in this school what I’d want for Jasper if he were here," he said. "I want children to know they’re safe, they’re loved, and I want them to learn at the highest level."
Cluff took over Seven Springs Elementary in January 2017, a place where need was great. For the 2016-2017 school year, Seven Springs was rated a "D" school, losing the high regard it claimed after opening in 1988. For the 2017-2018 school year, the grade improved to a "C."
About 75 percent of the 450 students qualify for free or reduced-fee lunches, an indicator of low family incomes.
Cluff said these statistics don’t reflect a broken school, but mirror broken parts of society that can’t be fixed by a school alone. The school needs community involvement.
The Seven Springs Rotary has asked how it can get involved. Cluff joined the group and looks forward to the partnership. Next, he wants to draw parents and community members into a school where their input is welcomed.
"The energy is building, and it’s incredible," Cluff says.
But first, it’s Sunday night Shark Tales, one of Cluff’s many plans for the school.
On its inaugural night, Cluff read more words that express his dream for Seven Springs children: "Build a ladder to the stars, and climb on every rung."
Times Correspondent Gail Diederich is a retired teacher. She has 32 years of experience, including 28 years in Pasco County Schools, where she taught gifted students and was a reading specialist. She also taught education, general studies and business leadership at Pasco Hernando State College and at Saint Leo University.