TAMPA — One hour.
For 311 Florida elementary schools, that's the length of time they've been told to extend their day this year, just to focus on reading. It could be the fix that lifts them off the list of lowest performing schools on the state's language arts test.
As the "Lowest 300" program enters its fifth year — with a growing number of Tampa Bay area schools on the list — educators insist it's not just the time that matters, but also how they spend it.
"The more time, the better, but you have to be able to plan before you do anything," said Michelle Zayas, a second-grade teacher at Hillsborough County's Robles Elementary School, which landed on the list in 2014. "It's what you're doing with that extra hour."
Done well, officials say, the 60 minutes can significantly improve children's reading skills.
State Sen. David Simmons began his push for longer days nearly a decade ago, creating a pilot program that added an hour at four Central Florida schools. They found success — one jumped from an F grade to an A — and the Republican lawmaker has moved to grow the concept ever since.
He convinced his colleagues in 2012 to require the extra time for 100 elementary schools with the lowest reading scores, then two years later expanded it to 300.
"They just need a little extra time and attention," Simmons said of the students in these schools, often in low-income neighborhoods. "If we give these children a helping hand, they'll be able to do great things."
Educators saw value in the model: Some recommended it to Simmons. But under the original format, they balked because the mandate came without money.
Schools learned they were on the list in the summer, then had to scramble to reorganize schedules and budgets to make their programs work. This past spring, for the first time, lawmakers approved $52.9 million for the program.
Five weeks into the year, "L-300" schools around Tampa Bay are well into their efforts.
The law sets no requirements for how to spend the hour, other than teachers must use research-based methods and target students' individual needs. As a result, many schools have key similarities, especially their use of computer programs that identify student skill levels and hone materials to their abilities. But some of their approaches differ considerably.
Pasco County's Cox Elementary, which entered the expanded list in 2014, mixed its reading instruction into the regular class flow. Its extra hour at the end of the day focuses on hands-on science lessons, for fourth- and fifth-graders only.
"We end the day in something that the kids know will be fun and engaging for them," principal Claudia Steinacker said.
Most other Pasco schools on the list spend the last hour of the day on reading.
The extra time frees teachers to teach reading the way they know it should be done, without sacrificing anything else. In the past, Cox has struggled to find time to focus on all materials adequately, taking away from writing to improve math, for instance, only to see writing performance drop.
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Fifth-grade teacher Tanisha Bennett plots out her added daily hour on a detailed spreadsheet. It includes a stage-setting introduction, interactive reading aloud and independent practice. Students often work on computers and in small groups, both with and without the teacher.
Bennett likes to mix things up, too, so the kids don't grow bored. And they said they don't.
"It helps you more," said Jasmin Torres, 10. "It makes it so you don't have to do intensive reading in middle school."
Bennett viewed the daily hour as a gift.
"I felt like I needed more time with my students to get them proficient," she said. "With the additional time, they're able to build from their level. . . . (Last year) I had my highest learning gains."
Hillsborough schools, which already had a longer day than Pasco, added just 30 minutes of reading — 15 at the beginning and 15 at the end. Robles Elementary principal Bonnie McDaniel said teachers use the time to plan their lessons and work with children.
Independent computer work is key to Hillsborough's effort, which also provides time for independent reading.
This on top of the usual 90 minutes of reading that all Florida schools must provide every day.
On a recent morning, Zayas, the Robles second-grade teacher, handed a page about sharks to the five students sitting with her, and asked them to read it carefully for facts. On nearby computers, Zayas' other students worked on less challenging materials, such as short vowel sounds.
After time with the first group, she switched to another.
The lessons focused on their individual reading abilities, determined by a test they took earlier in the year. Zayas said the information helps her decide what work she must do with each child, while also choosing activities they can do at home.
In a computer room next door, fifth grade teacher Tamika Lawson used the same model. She took copious notes on each child's work on the concept of cause and effect, and made sure they knew how they were doing.
"I really hold them accountable," Lawson said. "I show them where they're doing great, and where they struggle. And now that we know it, we look at where are we going to go from here."
Her students get it.
"It shows us something we've learned in the classroom," said Andre Bowden, 11. "If we don't pay attention in the classroom, we won't get a good grade, a good education. It actually helps us."
If these teachers have a concern, it's that success will hurt them. Hillsborough removes funding for the added time at schools that break out of the lowest 300, although "we don't take everything away," said program coordinator Angela Fullwood.
Bennett, the Pasco teacher, said she often worries about a funding loss. If her school figures out what works, and it happens because of the added time, she said, "if we lose the additional time, we lose what works."
Pinellas Park Elementary asked to keep its extra hour and got it.
"Teachers said, 'Our kids need it,' " principal Lisa Freeman said. "As you get momentum, you don't want to pull out the support."
Simmons, the state senator, eventually wants to add class time for all schools.
Those that leave the list shouldn't lose their services, he said. In fact, he suggested, all schools deserve more time.
For too long, Simmons said, many people shrugged while Florida's poor and heavily minority schools failed year after year.
"The fact of it is, they can (do better)," he said. "They just need a little help."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeffsolochek.