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22 Schools Hogtailed by `Reading First' Program

Ohanian Comment: Their headline was 22 schools to benefit from `Reading First' program. "At least" eight new tests in return for 5% of the grant moneys to be spent on library books doesn't sound like a terrific benefit to me--especially when we know that a whole lot of the rest will go for skill drill.

Twenty-two Palm Beach County elementary schools will start the fall with new reading coaches, extra library materials and a lot more testing.

The schools are part of a new state program called "Reading First," designed to help improve students' reading skills before they take the stressful Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The program affects students in kindergarten through third grade.

The state provided $2.7 million to start the program, divided among the 22 schools, including three charter schools. The schools must spend 5 percent of their allocation on library materials. They'll each get one reading coach, and teachers will get training on how to improve student reading skills.

Schools in the program have large numbers of struggling students, but are not the most needy in the county. The 38 schools with the highest poverty rates and lowest test scores already are participating in the district's $26 million "Accelerated Academic Achievement" plan, which provides extra teachers and resources.

The school district won a competitive grant to get the money for the Reading First program. And they're excited about most aspects of the program. "The reading coaches are awesome. So are the classroom libraries," said Linda Marshall, a reading specialist. "As for the testing, you don't have a choice. It is a lot of assessment."

Kindergarten through third-grade students at these schools can expect to take at least eight tests during the school year, on skills such as phonics, vocabulary, word recognition and reading comprehension. That's in addition to tests they already take.

Many parents and educators have complained of the testing frenzy since FCAT began in the late 1990s. Students have to pass the reading portion of the third-grade FCAT to move on to fourth grade. High school students must pass the 10th-grade FCAT to graduate. Schools are graded based on their FCAT scores.

School officials doubt these tests will create the same kind of pressure, since they'll be used mainly to see how well children are reading, and whether remedial help is needed. Students in kindergarten through second grade take no state tests.

"We need to be assessing our children, and we shouldn't wait until the third grade for them to have their first serious assessment," said Sandra Byrne, principal at Plumosa Elementary in Delray Beach.

"The whole FCAT is very stressful for kids, but this sounds like it's a good program," said Christine Shepherd, whose daughter will be a first-grader this fall at Indian Pines Elementary west of Lake Worth. "It's good to give students extra reading help, and if you have to test them to see how well they're doing, I don't have a problem with that."

Several administrators say they are excited about the program and welcome the additional resources.

"Anything that provides extra resources to help our children read is a good thing," said Peter Slack, principal at Boca Raton Elementary.

Scott Travis can be reached at stravis@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6637.

— Scott Travis
South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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