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Hillsborough’s quarterly school results show importance of preschool

Reading proficiency, however, continues to be a challenge.
Victoria Arriaga, left, does a letter-matching activity during Priscilla Perez's pre-kindergarten class at West Tampa Elementary School in 2018.  [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Victoria Arriaga, left, does a letter-matching activity during Priscilla Perez's pre-kindergarten class at West Tampa Elementary School in 2018. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 18
Updated Nov. 19

TAMPA — Quarterly numbers are in for the Hillsborough County Public Schools, and they make a strong case about the importance of quality preschool.

Kindergarten readiness, a measure of fundamental skills including recognition of letters, numbers, shapes and colors, increased two points this year over last, from 50 to 52 percent. And, among students who spent the last year in preschool, the readiness statistic rose from 47 to 50.3 percent.

Hillsborough leaders have been trying to get more children into preschool as a first step toward better results in kindergarten and beyond. They are also trying to strengthen ties to the preschool providers, to ensure quality instruction and a smooth transition that will result in better results.

The reading and kindergarten readiness numbers were among many statistics the School Board reviewed at a workshop Tuesday.

The numbers show that behavior has remained about the same, as have middle schoolers’ ability to pass their core subjects. Also unchanged were 9th graders’ grade point averages. Attendance rates improved slightly.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins wants at least 80 percent of all third graders to read at grade level, as measured by the yearly Florida Standards Assessment. But the district is far from that goal and, in fact, early tests through the iReady system show a drop compared to this time last year, from 52 to 49 percent passing. A consultant study on the district’s reading instruction system is ongoing.

Debbie Cook, the district’s chief academic officer, said the district is already responding to findings in the consultant’s first report on curriculum, instruction, assessment, supports to students and professional learning.

District leaders and some school board members are also watching closely a pilot literacy program that uses a Harvard University-created product called Expeditionary Learning, or EL.

Exceptional student education teacher Robin Mullins, center, helps Dakota-Skye King, left, Jayven Nobles, and Jemelliah Bethune with their reading skills in class at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Tricia McManus, the assistant superintendent who runs the Achievement initiative for high-needs schools, said in classroom observations, “100 percent of students were reading and reacting to complex, grade-level text.”

Board members Lynn Gray and Melissa Snively also said they were impressed with what they saw in the EL classrooms.

“There was much engagement from the children and they seem to be holding books when I walk into the room,” Gray said.

Tyanaliz Gonzalez, 10, right, completes her worksheet while reading a chapter from the book Esperanza Rising as part of her class curriculum at Forest Hill Elementary School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Forest Hills Elementary School is taking part in a new pilot program with materials and curriculum designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Member Stacy Hahn said she was frustrated by the slow pace in increasing the kindergarten readiness rate.

And member Cindy Stuart questioned if all students in the Achievement schools are able to handle the EL material. "It is rigorous," she said.

Questions also continue about iReady, the reading and math program that the district uses to test students over the course of the year to they know what they need to work on in preparation for the FSA.

At some schools, teachers are using iReady for instruction as well, to varying degrees. In a memo to the board, Superintendent Jeff Eakins said district leaders are gathering data and arranging more training for teachers so that they use iReady only when appropriate.

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