Hooper: Hillsborough schools shouldn’t tune out reading aid

Published April 3 2018
Updated April 6 2018

If you step into a classroom at Community Charter School of Excellence on a particular morning, youíll find the air filling with an audible buzz from the students. But this isnít chatter from the kids, who all wear headphones and focus on an animated program on computer screens.

Theyíre singing. A bit off key, perhaps, but singing enthusiastically. Theyíre also learning, thanks to a program called Tune Into Reading.

The reading intervention software allows students to sing along to songs while looking at the words on the screen. Itís an oral reading exercise with songs varied for reading difficulty, strategic vocabulary, and comprehension. Students take a quiz after each song lesson, which consists of listening to the song three times and singing it five times.

The quizzes indicate their progress in learning new vocabulary and comprehending the story told in the song.

Its founder, Carlo Franz-blau, says the rhythm and melody help embed the learning experience into a studentís long-term memory. He has no shortage of empirical data to support his belief in the program, and he has endorsements.

Community Charter principal Matt Torano so believes in the program, heís extended its use in his classrooms. Torano does so not on a whim, but on the data on how his students have performed on a computer adaptive test known as MAP.

For Torano, the stakes are high. Like every other public and charter school in Florida, his school will be graded based on how students perform on the state assessment tests. Heís seeking the best tools to boost the schoolís grade, now a D.

Toranoís faith in Tuned Into Reading, along with other school administrators who have embraced the software, leave Franzblau wondering why the Hillsborough County School District wonít implement it across the board. It did, once, with more than 30 schools using it as a pilot program between 2006 and 2011. Principals raved about it. But now it remains an unused option in the public schools.

Make no mistake, Franzblau is a businessman who would profit if the district tuned in to Tuned Into Reading. Yet I also sense heís driven by an altruistic spirit and a belief the districtís decision is a recipe for failure for its most struggling students ó most of whom are black and brown.

The answer from Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins is a bit complex, but leaves Franzblau unsatisfied.

In 2016, Eakins and Elizabeth Agresta, then his chief academic officer, insisted that the districtís decision makers who declined to used Tune Into Reading assess the program, yet again, and produce a detailed explanation on why they chose to use other programs.

Their report concluded Franz-blauís program isnít compatible with the new standards that came into place when the state changed its assessment tests. As you might imagine, Franzblau strongly disagrees. He points to recent Florida Standards Assessment data from Pinellas County thatís led them to expand its use of the software program.

Eakins said Tune Into Reading works well with fluency, but doesnít enhance all reading aspects or have clear monitoring components to measure progress.

"I think we have in our schools a lot of the programs and products that both do that and align to the standards a little bit better than that product," Eakins said last month. "At least the content experts have come to that conclusion."

But the report also concluded that Tune Into Reading would work well in an afterschool setting, and could complement the efforts.

That was two years ago, and Franzblau has yet to have a meaningful conversation with a district official about implementing the program. Eakins told me he would work to arrange a meeting between him, Franzblau and Debbie Zenk, the Supervisor of Out of School Time.

Franzblau remains skeptical.

"While we continue to help kids around the country improve reading scores, we look forward to the day we can help kids in our own community," Franzblau said.

In the end, this is a district that continues to struggle to raise test scores in some of its most challenging schools. For the past two years, Hillsborough has had more schools on the stateís "Lowest 300" list than any other district.

Eakins is right to cite the complexities of improving scores, including the need to enhance early learning efforts and his faith that effective teachers, not technology, stand as the most important component. Yes, a schoolís socioeconomic status and parental support ó or lack thereof ó remain overwhelming factors.

Yet given the districtís challenge to lift up some of its neediest students, it should make an earnest effort to embrace every tool that can help. Whether itís before school, during school or after school, the stakes are too high to eschew potential solutions.

If nothing else, Franzblau deserves a meeting. And probably a purchase order. Maybe his program would give all of us something great to sing about.

Thatís all Iím saying.