Legislators earmark $400,000 for reading program at struggling schools in St. Petersburg

Students line up outside in the courtyard as they prepare to participate in a no referral party at Lakewood Elementary, one of the five St. Petersburg schools that stand to receive help through a reading program that has been included in the state budget. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Students line up outside in the courtyard as they prepare to participate in a no referral party at Lakewood Elementary, one of the five St. Petersburg schools that stand to receive help through a reading program that has been included in the state budget. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published March 11, 2016

Five failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg could receive intensive reading assistance from the University of Florida after state legislators earmarked nearly $400,000 for a new program being tried with students in two of the schools.

State legislators said Thursday during a debate about the proposed $82.3 billion budget that the money was intended to help Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Melrose and Maximo — schools that were at the heart of a yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories." The budget is expected to pass the state Legislature Friday.

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego called it a "great win for the community."

"We're happy and grateful," said Don Pemberton, director of the UF College of Education's Lastinger Center for Learning.

The Lastinger Center first used the program last year with about 20 students from Campbell Park off-site at Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg. After the program showed positive results, it was expanded in January with about 30 third, fourth and fifth graders during the school day at Melrose.

Pemberton said that they asked to work with the school's most struggling readers. Some students could read just six to eight words total when they began, he said.

Holly Lane, an associate professor at UF who lead the assessment team, said in a video about the program that one of the girls they worked with had never read an entire sentence before. Her improvement was rapid.

"I think she was a third grader. Third grade, and she'd never read an entire sentence before. And now she could do it. And she could read lots of entire sentences, and it was a pretty powerful, and empowering, thing for her," Lane said.

Pemberton said that "Winning Reading Boost" — a 36-step, 90-day program — is intended for students who need the most help. It's meant to supplement their classroom instruction, not replace it. The program emphasizes phonics and music.

Pemberton said that Kevin Gordon, a provost at St. Petersburg College, approached him about the five schools after the Times started publishing Failure Factories, which showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for the five elementary schools, which became predominantly poor and black. Today, the schools are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in Florida.

The Pinellas County School Board once had a partnership with the Lastinger Center to provide training to teachers in struggling schools, including the five in south St. Petersburg. But district officials abruptly ended the program in 2011 after board members complained about the cost, about $1 million a year.

The initiative offered a free master's degree to teachers who stayed in the schools for five years. The Lastinger Center ended up picking up the costs for some teachers to finish.

That experience left a "bad taste in their mouth," Gordon said Thursday. But he said that he persisted until Pemberton agreed.

"It's unfortunate that this situation precipitated that, but I'm excited there's something that's giving these kids hope that they can tackle reading and be successful at it, because at the end of the day if these kids can't read, they really aren't able to participate in the American dream," Gordon said.

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He also approached Clarence Williams, a pastor at Greater Mt. Zion AME.

Williams said he agreed to hold the program in the church after school, used the church's bus to pick students up from school and drop them off at home, and gave the kids a snack. He said he watched students who were frustrated and embarrassed that they couldn't read initially act out before being drawn in by the music and activities.

"After about two weeks, I just saw a noticeable improvement in the way the kids were responding," he said.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he had originally sought $1.1 million for the reading program, but was happy to see the Legislature is at least directing $400,000 to deal specifically with the problems at the five schools.

Pemberton said he will need to work out details with Grego. They are considering programs during the summer, after-school and during the school day, he said. It's also not clear yet if they will work in all five schools at once, he said.

"So far, the reception's been very positive," he said.

Preliminary results of students who completed 40 hours of instruction showed solid improvement, researchers said. Before the program, only about 40 percent of participating students met a specified standard for foundational phonics skills. Afterward, about 80 percent did.

Staff Writers Lisa Gartner and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this story. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @Fitz_ly.