Manatee invests in grade-level reading. The results are starting to show

The challenges and benefits of grade-level reading in Manatee

Beth Duda, director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, looks to the future.
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Beth Duda, director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, looks to the future.

People throughout Manatee County are invested in students’ ability to read from a young age, not just for their love of learning, but for the betterment of everyone’s future.

“There’s a direct correlation between how well the children are doing in school and how well their communities are doing,” said Beth Duda, director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

She recently joined local schools, libraries, businesses, nonprofits and community centers in a moment of celebration after the Florida Department of Education announced this year’s reading scores. Overall, scores for elementary schools in Manatee County rose 2 percentage points — from 49 percent to 51 percent — in a measure of reading proficiency among third-graders.

The state DOE tracks students’ reading abilities with the Florida Standards Assessments. On a scale of one to five, Level Three is considered “satisfactory,” while Level Four is “proficient” and Level Five is “mastery.”

Fifty-one percent of elementary students achieved a Level 3 or higher, an increase over the previous year, though Manatee is still 7 percentage points below the state average.

Fifteen schools surpassed the state average, with more than 58 percent of students achieving a Level Three or higher:

  • Anna Maria Elementary — 69 percent.
  • Jessie P. Miller Elementary — 60 percent.
  • Myakka City Elementary — 60 percent.
  • Palma Sola Elementary — 61 percent.
  • Ida M. Stewart Elementary — 66 percent.
  • Braden River Elementary — 64 percent.
  • Gene Witt Elementary — 82 percent.
  • Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary — 75 percent.
  • Virgil Mills Elementary — 70 percent.
  • Robert Willis Elementary — 76 percent.
  • Annie Lucy Williams Elementary — 66 percent.
  • B.D. Gullet Elementary — 73 percent.
  • Imagine Charter at Lakewood Ranch — 69 percent.
  • Palmetto Charter School — 89 percent.
  • William Monroe Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication — 70 percent.

While she was encouraged by the overall growth, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said she was even more heartened by schools that improved their lowest scores. Students who score a Level One are held back unless they pass summer classes or pursue other options.

And though some didn’t exceed the state average, several schools increased their proficiency — students who achieved a Level Three or higher — and decreased their Level One scores:

  • Ballard Elementary — Up 6 points in proficiency, and down 19 in Level One scores.
  • Manatee Elementary — Up 5 points in proficiency, and down 10 in Level One scores.
  • Oneco Elementary — Up 7 points in proficiency, and down four in Level One scores.
  • Palm View Elementary — Up 20 points in proficiency, and down 27 in Level One scores.
  • Palmetto Elementary — Up 18 points in proficiency, and down 17 in Level One scores.
  • Samoset Elementary — Up 5 points in proficiency, and down eight in Level One scores.
  • Blackburn Elementary — Up 2 points in proficiency, and down 10 in Level One scores.
  • William H. Bashaw Elementary — Up 8 points in proficiency, and down six in Level One scores.
  • Marjorie G. Kinnan Elementary — Up 14 points in proficiency, and down 10 in Level One scores.
  • Team Success — Up 4 points in proficiency, and down three in Level One scores.

The school district is focused on supporting its English-language learners and making it easier for families to enroll their children in preschool, where the effort first begins, Saunders said.

“If you’re a person that doesn’t speak the native language, or a person of poverty where you may not have access to a computer or internet, that’s going to be a barrier,” she said.

Community problems require community involvement

Poverty is one of the greatest threats to a student’s education, said Duda, director of the grade-level reading initiative. Children can’t be expected to learn if they face hunger or lacking resources.

“Many of our moderate- and higher-income kids are exposed to high-quality activities over the course of the summer, that actually allow them to gain reading skills,” she said. “Our poorest children, on average, lose two and a half months of reading skills over the summer.”

She plans to address the issue by preparing children for school in their infancy, making sure they regularly attend school, preventing a loss of knowledge during the summer, getting parents involved and nurturing the students’ health.

It could be a decade before Manatee enjoys substantial growth, and that’s only if the community maintains its focus on grade-level reading. But the effort is worthwhile, Duda said, citing the research of economist and Nobel Prize laureate James Heckman.

For every $1 invested in childhood programs, the community can expect potential returns of $7 to $12 in the future.

“The savings for a community come from more children graduating, less people relying on public assistance, less people incarcerated,” Duda said.

She and many others were heartened by the progress on their long-term investment, but 49 percent of students still finished third grade without a proper understanding of how to read. If students don’t reach a satisfactory level by third grade, they face a high risk of falling even further behind and facing lifelong disadvantages, she said.

Regardless of whether students are interested in college, trade schools or the workforce, they need a foundation.

“Our education system is designed so children learn how to read from birth until third grade,” she explained. “Beyond third grade, the expectation is they can read to learn.”

Luckily, she is joined by a team of like-minded men and women. Bronwyn Beightol is the Manatee area president for United Way Suncoast, the campaign’s lead partner in Manatee County.

Beightol is helping to put greater emphasis on data and results, along with a laser focus on the county’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and schools.

“A thriving community, a thriving democracy, requires that all of our constituents are able to engage in that democracy,” she said.

With help from the Patterson Foundation, the Early Learning Coalition and a mix of county libraries, food banks and other organizations, the initiative made its way to area laundromats.

Families leave with food, books and a free load of clean laundry, along with information about the resources available in their area. Beightol said she recently crossed paths with a young boy at one of the pop-up events.

“So I said, ‘Do you want to read to me or shall I read to you?’ ”

It turns out the boy, who was preparing to enter second grade, was still unable to read.

“We need to understand the challenges and ask ourselves, ‘What is my part? How can I help?’ ” Beightol said.

Another promising effort is known as Dive into Reading, a summer reading program that started at Anna Maria Oyster Bar’s location in Ellenton. The program has expanded to four Manatee locations since its inception in 2017.

Groups of students arrive at the various locations for one-on-one time with a mentor, without the distraction of siblings or neighborhood struggles. They enjoy a meal, books and a new experience, said John Horne, the restaurant owner.

They might learn how to shake hands, maintain eye contact, hold a conversation and, hopefully, to have fun reading.

“We just wanted a way to help teach kids the joy of reading, but we also wanted to pair life skills with it,” Horne said. “So we are bringing children in, not just feeding them breakfast, but showing them how to eat breakfast at a table with adults.”

The program grew through a fund at the Manatee Community Foundation, and through support from local businesses, nonprofits and volunteers.

Residents sometimes join one initiative and become regular volunteers in a local school. Companies may hold a book drive instead of a gift exchange during the holidays, and some businesses let their employees come in late to volunteer for the morning program.

“The mentors are leaning as much about the community as the kids are learning about reading and social skills,” Horne said.