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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tackling the crisis in reading in Hillsborough schools

Few skills are as essential as the ability to read. Yet tens of thousands of Hillsborough County students continue to struggle in a stifled learning environment that is not preparing them for the future. The Florida Department of Education may be in denial, but Hillsborough County School Board Member Lynn Gray accurately describes the literacy gap as "a crisis." Fixing it will require a broader coordinated effort by the state, the school system, parents, local leaders and the business community.

In a sweeping report this week, the Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol chronicled Hillsborough's deep, persistent failures in reading and the school district's search for fresh solutions in turning around a critical component of childhood education.

Tens of thousands of Hillsborough school kids struggle to read, according to state testing data - despite years of trial and error, mountains of research and millions poured into well-intentioned programs. Only of half the Hillsborough students who took the state's reading test last spring passed. Nearly a fourth scored in the lowest range, Level 1. While officials note that reading scores are poor in many places statewide and across the nation, no district has more schools on Florida's "persistently low-performing" list than Hillsborough.

As with any chronic problem, the causes of Hillsborough's failure in reading are many and complex. Interviews with nearly 100 teachers, administrators, literacy experts and students point to a rigid statewide testing process, teacher turnover and shortages, and uninspiring reading material in the schools. Misbehaving students distract teachers and classmates, eating up valuable instructional time. The district also has a large population of students learning English as a second language and qualifying for free lunch, reflecting cultural challenges in Hillsborough and the difficulty many poorer households have in assisting in a child's education. Students by far said the biggest reasons they soured on reading were the state-required tests and the class time spent preparing for them.

This is a multifaceted problem with no quick or easy fix. Yet the Florida Department of Education declined to make its experts in reading and testing available for interviews, hiding behind a seven-paragraph email that ignored the specifics in Hillsborough and cherry-picked numbers that overstate the quality of the statewide school system. The very department that preaches accountability to local school districts cannot offer any leadership?

Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins is taking several steps to try to meet his pledge of getting 80 percent of third-graders on proper reading levels by 2023. He is focusing on early childhood education to better prepare students for kindergarten and elementary school. A district working group is exploring how to make new inroads in literacy. The district wants to bring in an outside organization to audit Hillsborough's reading programs. Some are calling for a community-wide literacy campaign.

These are provocative ideas, and the next step should be involving a greater cross-section of the community. Tampa's incoming mayor, Jane Castor, and several new city council members who take office in May have called for a greater focus on at-risk youth and stronger involvement with the school system. A communitywide literacy campaign could be a vehicle for getting the private sector more engaged with the most struggling school populations. The entire region has a stake in the quality of Hillsborough's schools, and the reading gap seems a perfect fit for an ambitious civic effort.