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  1. Education

Local elementary schools among Florida's lowest in reading

Published Jul. 12, 2014

Five Pinellas County elementary schools and one in Hillsborough were among the state's 20 lowest performers in reading this past year.

Melrose Elementary and Fairmount Park Elementary logged the two lowest scores statewide, part of a list released Friday along with school grades. Both schools earned F's for the second consecutive year.

The other local schools in the bottom 20, based on FCAT reading proficiency and gains, were Maximo, Lakewood and Campbell Park elementaries in Pinellas, and Potter in Hillsborough. Overall, Hillsborough had 26 schools on the list of 307 that must provide an added hour of daily reading instruction, while Pinellas had 16 and Pasco had three.

No Hernando schools were included.

The list is the result of a 2012 decision by state lawmakers to put more attention on elementary schools with the poorest reading test results, tracking with the philosophy that students who don't read well cannot succeed. Initially, 100 of the state's 1,800 elementary schools were tagged, but this year the Legislature expanded the number.

Not all schools on the list earned poor grades. Statewide, one school that earned an A fell under the mandate, as well as nine with B's and 69 with C's. At the same time, nearly half of Florida's F schools did not make the list.

The one common factor was poverty. All but six of the schools qualify for Title I federal funding to support low-income students.

Juan Copa, deputy Florida education commissioner for accountability, said the list deals with reading only, while school grades incorporate test results from other subject areas.

"It is possible to earn an A but have struggles in reading," Copa said.

He noted that, with the extra instruction that comes with the mandate, schools often improve. Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia pointed out that most of the schools in her district that made the 2013 list came off this year, replaced by others where attention to reading may not have been as focused.

"That is a big deal," Elia said.

She praised the state for paying attention to the low performers, and for using both student achievement and growth to determine which schools to focus on. At the same time, she called the effort an unfunded mandate that forces districts to pay for the extra reading instruction with money earmarked for other things.

Mary Jane Tappen, Florida executive vice chancellor for K-12 schools, said districts must use money from their reading and supplemental instruction budgets to cover the added hour. Two big costs are staff salaries and student transportation, which would have to be reorganized if the extra reading instruction is held after the regular day.

Most districts have used that money on other initiatives, such as Summer Bridge in Pinellas.

"I just wish the funding had been there, because now you have to make choices about who gets extended day and who doesn't," said Amelia Larson, Pasco County assistant superintendent.

School officials said they will determine the best way to implement the additional instruction while minimizing the expense and the impact on families.

Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg said he understood the funding concerns, but suggested that schools and districts need to set priorities because they always could use more money.

"The Legislature has increased funding" for education, he said, adding, "there's no question we need to do more."

Donna Winchester, Pinellas schools spokeswoman, said district leaders already have begun talking about how to ensure that the schools on the list get proper services. Many of them appeared on the list last year, too, and showed minimal improvement despite additional attention.

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego has frequently questioned why some local schools are persistently among the state's worst performers, despite other areas with similar demographics.

Grego had taken steps to overhaul several schools he expected to perform poorly, even before the grades came out.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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