Campaign for Grade-Level Reading leader visits Visible Men Academy

BRADENTON -- In the last year, the percentage of students able to read at their proper educational grade level at Visible Men Academy jumped from 17 percent to 70 percent, according to officials.

This year alone, 60 percent of students have posted gains since September, but that's not quite good enough, officials say.

"Our goal is to have them above grade level," said Neil Phillips, founder of the all-male charter school on 63rd Avenue East.

Visible Men Academy is an all-boy charter, serving about 90 students from kindergarten to fourth grade from Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Phillips and other school officials gave Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a tour Thursday as part of his visit to the Sarasota-Bradenton area. Smith is meeting with community leaders in Manatee and Sarasota counties to talk about the campaign.

After visiting Visible Men Academy, Smith spoke at the Legacy Luncheon for the Manatee Community Foundation at Pier 22.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a national collaborative ef

fort by foundations, nonprofits, business leaders and other stakeholders to ensure students are reading on grade level by third grade.

Launched in 2010, the campaign focuses on five different areas: chronic absence, school readiness, healthy readers, parent and family engagement and summer learning loss.

United Way of Manatee County, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and the Manatee Community Foundation, along with the Manatee County School District and the Manatee Education Foundation, applied to be a grade level reading community and have been accepted.

The goal is to increase by 100 percent the proficiency of children from low-income families reading on grade level by 2020.

In the recent Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, which will be replaced this year with new standards testing, 51 percent of Manatee County students passed by scoring a three or higher on the reading test. A three is considered proficient by state standards. In Sarasota, 71 percent of students scored three or higher on the reading test.

The Sarasota community has been a Campaign for Grade-Level Reading member for three years. Manatee County joined in October. Almost 150 communities participate in the campaign across the country.

When students hit the fourth grade, there's normally a "pivot" in learning, Smith said. Students are then expected to become more independent readers.

In the fourth grade, comprehension, analysis and understanding become as important as reading words on the page. If students are not on level in third grade, it can affect them throughout their lives, education officials say.

"That's why it becomes really important," Smith said.

The school plans to add a fifth-grade class this fall. Their charter contract allows them to serve students through grade eight.

The school wants to focus on boys from low-income communities who may not have "visible men" in their lives to encourage them to reach their potential and help plan for the future.

Visible Men Academy, with an extended school day and longer school year than public schools, also works to involve parents in education. Saturday sessions bring in mentors to speak with students.

"We don't just talk about it. We show it," said Cindy Day, director of development.

During the tour, Smith and other officials saw work being done in the classrooms.

In fourth grade, student teams competed in a math challenge to solve a multiplication problems.

In first grade, students were drawing and learning about Georgia O'Keefe.

In kindergarten, students were counting.

Bringing Smith into school is logical, said John Annis, senior vice president of community investment for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Annis said the initiative's message is simple and powerful.

Annis accompanied Smith, who will visit Sarasota County's Alta Vista Elementary School on Friday.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.