School on Saturday? Pinellas sees it as another way to reach struggling students

Second-grade teacher Emma Sichette, left, works with third-graders Antonio Brown, center, 8, and Cadi Moorehead, 9, during Saturday Academy on Jan. 28.
Second-grade teacher Emma Sichette, left, works with third-graders Antonio Brown, center, 8, and Cadi Moorehead, 9, during Saturday Academy on Jan. 28.
Published Feb. 7, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Sitting in the school library on a brisk and breezy Saturday morning, Cadi Moorehead proudly held up two sheets of paper.

"I wrote a two-page story about Nate the Great," she announced.

Cadi, 9, could have slept in. She could have played outside. But she wanted to be in school. So here she was on a Saturday morning at Fairmount Park Elementary, doing math on an iPad, reading aloud from Nate the Great, a children's series about a boy detective, and writing a story about what she read.

More than two dozen Pinellas County schools are offering Saturday classes this year in an effort to give students more opportunities to catch up, or even get ahead in their schoolwork. Students aren't required to attend, and most sessions last only a few hours. But the programs fit into superintendent Mike Grego's vision of expanding school hours for students who need it the most.

Since he was hired in 2012, Grego launched summer school, started before- and after-school tutoring, and created a program to provide laptops to students in low-income schools. He said the one-on-one attention students get at Saturday school is "priceless."

Efforts to extend the school day and year are common nationwide, particularly in low-performing schools where some students are years behind their classmates. Former President Barack Obama also encouraged school districts to lengthen school hours as a strategy to compete with countries whose students spent more time in school.

In Hillsborough County, like Pinellas, some schools have opened on Saturdays for years, often for remedial work and test preparation. This past weekend, for example, students turned out at Franklin Boys Preparatory, a middle school in East Tampa, for a "scrimmage" activity to prepare for the state writing exam.

But Pinellas' new initiative aims to make Saturday school a more regular feature than in the past.

Research about the approach is mixed. Some programs gave students an academic boost, while others didn't. According to a federal report released about two years ago, programs worked best when they targeted students for specific skills, such as reading, and students were taught by certified teachers.

Some of the benefits were less tangible than test scores. Students, in some cases, were more motivated and had better behavior when they attended the programs, the report said. And many students saw the programs as havens, a safe place to go.

Stephanie Joyner, principal at Largo Middle, said her school started Saturday classes last month. The school provides students with transportation and a snack. So far, 59 students have registered. The sessions include 30 minutes of physical education — a hook for some students, who come to play sports but still get academic support.

"However I can get them here, I want them here," she said.

Many of the schools offering Saturday sessions this year are low performing. There are a dozen elementary schools, including six of the eight schools that get extra support as part of the district's Transformation Zone, plus five middle schools and about a dozen high schools.

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District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the system didn't track which schools offered Saturday sessions in past years, so it's difficult to know if this is an expansion. The district also had no available count of how many students are participating this year.

The programs are paid for with dollars earmarked for extended learning and low-income students. Teachers who cover Saturday sessions receive their base pay, minus the referendum dollars built into their regular paychecks.

Grego said one pitfall of such programs is the potential for burnout, not only for students but for teachers. That's why the schools are flexible about how often they offer Saturday classes and who attends. Some administrators, who are required to be on campus if students are, take turns covering the sessions to allow others to see their families and get a break.

Joyner said she takes turns with the assistant principals, and Largo Middle holds Saturday sessions only twice a month.

"We really want to make sure teachers get the rest and enjoy the weekend too," Grego said.

At Fairmount Park, which started its Saturday Academy last semester, students get the benefit of a relaxed atmosphere and small group instruction. The school invited about 60 students in third, fourth and fifth grades to attend, said principal Kristy Moody.

Not every child who needs it will come, and some can't make it because of sports or family obligations. But "a lot of kids wanted to come," she said. "We're not going to turn anyone away."

Emma Sichette, a third-year teacher at Fairmount, said teaching on Saturday morning gets her day started, and she often comes in workout clothes and goes to the gym afterward. She said she's also committed to helping the school. "I like to help out where I can," she said.

A first-year teacher, Annie Nemeth teaches Saturdays and tutors children after school three days a week. She said she teaches the extra hours because she wants to help the children and, as an added bonus, it helps her grow in her profession. "I'm passionate about this," she said.

Shandreeka Henry, 10, said her older sister walks her to Fairmount's Saturday Academy. She said she enjoys being in school the extra time.

"They help us with what we need to understand," she said.

For Cadi, who also attends after-school tutoring at Fairmount, the extra hours have paid off: Her F in math is now a C.

Staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @Fitz_ly.