Manatee school official: Students need to be better prepared, earlier

eearl@bradenton.comFebruary 6, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Young children in Manatee County need to be better prepared to learn before entering kindergarten to avoid falling behind later on, Manatee County assistant superintendent of teaching and learning Bob Gagnon said Tuesday.

More than $8 million in taxpayer money will be spent during the 2012-2013 school year for remediate classes for students struggling to pass the FCAT and advance to the next grade, Gagnon said.

Data from the spring 2012 FCAT showed that only half of third-grade students in Manatee County are performing at proficiency level. One in three of those students are at level one, performing at the lowest level.

Gagnon pointed out that students in Manatee County are performing 15 percent below the state average. In Sarasota County, students are performing 45 percent above state average.

"Being at the state average is not acceptable, and we are even below that," Gagnon said.

Gagnon and Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallan believe that improvements to close the achievement gap should start at the pre-kindergarten level, as this is a crucial period for brain development. They have been discussing a plan of action to help improve kindergarten readiness for preschoolers. Gagnon also believes that young students need to be better prepared for accumulative learning.

"The bar is raised higher than it's ever been raised before," he said.

Although their plan is still in its "conversation period," he said that he believes action should be taken as soon as possible.

Gagnon's plan includes community awareness, public service announcements and parent education programs. Gallan said that he would like to see local businesses get involved as well.

Gagnon also wants to see a curriculum that is appropriate for preparing preschool students for kindergarten. He wants to ensure that preschools are Common Core certified, the curriculum that is now standard in public schools in Manatee County.

"We need a strong curriculum for pre-kindergarten that is consistent across the district," Gagnon said.

Many preschools are still based on the Next Generation standards and not the current Common Core standards. The plan is to align early learning programs that taxpayers are already supporting with the new curriculum so that youngsters may better transition into kindergarten. Gagnon also wants to bring the Common Core curriculum to churches, private groups and day care centers.

Gagnon spoke briefly on how economic status impacts a child's learning pace. Children in middle-class families are more likely to have exposure to reading, vocabulary and the arts over the summer than children in families living at the poverty level.

"If a child from a background of poverty and a middle-class child enter school at the same level, and we all know they don't, the gap between them would gradually increase," Gagnon said. He added that summer enrichment programs are critical.

"This will not be a quick fix," he said. "We need to be proactive and aggressive. What are we going to do differently from the past 10 to 20 years?"

While holding students back is an option, Gagnon would like to see children advance at an average pace.

"These kids may be behind, but they are not unintelligent," he said.

The Manatee Council of Governments is a group comprised of local governments and school districts.

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