Extra classes doing little to help Palm Beach County’s weakest readers

Palm Beach County is spending millions of dollars a year for an extra hour of reading classes at its lowest-performing elementary schools, but test scores indicate the classes are doing little to improve reading skills for the students struggling the most.

At the 16 county schools that have provided two full years of extended school days, the number of low-performing students improving their reading test scores has dropped instead of risen, a Palm Beach Post analysis of school testing data shows.

Learning gains for the bottom quarter of students at those elementary schools fell despite an investment of more than $20 million since 2012. Yet reading scores for students overall are improving slightly at the schools, suggesting that low-performing students are benefiting least from extra classes intended to help them most.

The findings come as more educators raise doubts about the merits of a state law requiring the extra reading classes at Florida’s 300 lowest-performing elementary schools.

Many school administrators call the mandate well-intentioned but say its inflexibility forces schools to spend money on extra lessons for students who don’t need them while preventing schools from directing more resources to students with greater needs.

The law requires nearly all students at the 300 schools to remain at school for the extra hour, including most students already reading at or above grade level.

The only exception is for students who earn the top score of “5” on the state’s standardized reading test. But educators say that even many of those students end up remaining at school for the extra hour out of convenience for parents, occupying teacher time that could be spent on students with serious reading difficulties.

“It becomes an equity issue,” said Keith Oswald, the school district’s chief academic officer. “We’re providing enhancements to kids with 4’s and 5’s (on the state test) while kids at other schools with 1’s and 2’s get none.”

Fewer weak readers

are improving

The Post examined the 16 county schools that have offered the extra hour for two years: the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. This year, 25 traditional county public schools and two charter schools are providing the classes.

Test results show that the overall improvement rate for the bottom quarter of reading test-takers fell roughly a percentage point from about 68 percent to 67 percent.

In eight schools the numbers went up. At eight they fell, in some cases by large margins.

At Lake Park Elementary, for instance, the percentage of low-performing students making substantial improvements on their reading test scores fell from 87 percent in 2011-12, the year before the reading classes started, to 58 percent last year.

At West Riviera Elementary, the number of low performers who significantly improved their scores fell from 75 percent to 64 percent during the same two-year span.

Overall, the number of students making significant improvements at the 16 schools rose 3 percentage points, from about 58 percent to 61 percent, after two years.

School district administrators acknowledged the disparity. They pointed out that the weakest readers often grapple with the greatest challenges from poverty and lack of educational reinforcement in the home, making them in many cases the most difficult group to reach with extra lessons.

After encouraging results in the first year, student improvements appeared to drop off at many schools after the second year, said Mark Howard, the school district’s chief of performance accountability.

“The ability to sustain an additional hour can be pretty tough,” Howard said. “It’s cost-prohibitive if there’s no additional funding for it.”

Duval schools chief:

Classes not worth cost

In 2012, when the extra-reading requirement became state law, it targeted only the 100 lowest-performing schools. The mandate was expanded this school year to the 300 lowest schools.

The mandate has been hailed in Tallahassee, with lawmakers pointing to evidence of rising test scores at most of the schools implementing the extra hour.

But legislators provided no extra money for the extended day, requiring schools districts to come up with the money themselves for extra salary, materials and transportation costs. The total cost to Palm Beach County’s public schools this year: $9 million.

A closer look at the test results also has raised questions about the program’s effectiveness statewide.

In February, a state review found that students in only 20 percent of the extra-hour schools outperformed demographically and academically similar students at non-participating schools.

Duval County’s schools superintendent cited the study, by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, last month in a letter to state lawmakers, asking them to abolish or revise the mandate.

“The required investment is not yielding the results you may believe it is,” wrote Nikolai Vitti, the Duval County superintendent.

In an interview, Vitti said the mandate makes for good politics because it sounds like a vigorous response to a serious problem. But he said state lawmakers never considered the mandate’s unintended consequences or examined its results in detail.

“It’s a classic example of what’s wrong with education reform in Tallahassee,” he said. “It resonates with the average taxpayers on a simple level, but as is often the case, we don’t dig deeper.”

Vitti and other educators say the extended day turns off some parents, exhausts many students and drives away teachers reluctant to teach for an extra hour, even though they are compensated for the additional time.

Classes broken

into small groups

Though some principals complain about the mandate’s restrictiveness, many say they welcome the program.

“An additional hour can only benefit them,” said Katrina Granger, principal of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary in Riviera Beach. “We really need every opportunity to be creative and innovative.”

On a recent school day at Granger’s school, third-graders in the extra-hour classes worked in groups of four or five, divided by skill level. Some read aloud together. Some worked with flashcards. Others wrote in journals or clicked through computerized reading tutorials.

At a table, teacher Donneth Brooks-Ives gathered a small group of students identified as needing extra help.

Page by page, they went over the plot of a picture book about dinosaurs. The aim: to teach “context clues” that help struggling readers zero in on a book’s purpose and theme.

McLeod Bethune Elementary is in its third year of an extended school day, and the extra time is used almost entirely for small-group work, allowing for more individualized attention.

Teachers there say the extra hour of reading helps to reinforce reading lessons from the regular 90-minute reading classes.

“This way I don’t feel I always have to play catch-up,” said Kelly DePirro, a third-grade teacher at the school. “I don’t know what I would do without the extended day.”

Lawmaker: Results

are ‘life-changing’

Despite uneven results, the mandate is fiercely defended by the lawmaker most responsible for it: state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

While conceding that not all students show direct benefits, he said most schools see their overall reading scores go up. Even students already reading at grade level benefit from more reading time, he said.

“The results are too good to not do it,” he said. “The results, when it’s done right, are dramatic. And the benefits are life-changing for these children.”

The law mandating the extra classes was not renewed during this year’s legislative session, but Simmons said he still expects the requirement to be included in the state budget when lawmakers reconvene next month.

For now, Palm Beach County school leaders plan to continue the program next year in at least four elementary schools: Belle Glade, Northmore, Pioneer Park and Canal Point. The other schools will have their extra-hour programs discontinued unless they appear on the state’s new list of the lowest 300 schools. But that list might not be released until after the school year has started — and it might not be created at all if the extra-hour mandate is not included next month in the new state budget.

Oswald, the district’s chief academic officer, said he is torn about the mandate, which he said “puts the district in a position to make some tough decisions for all schools.”

Though some students benefit, he said, the money might be better spent by targeting weak readers at more elementary schools. Or by training more teachers to enhance their reading instruction skills.

“The research is clear: The classroom teacher makes the difference,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily take an extended day to make it happen.”

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