MANATEE -- At individual white boards with dry-erase markers in hand, students entering kindergarten this fall at Bayshore Elementary School are working this summer on rhyming skills.
"Have you ever seen...," teacher Lindsey Colley started, writing the first half of the sentence on her large easel and looking around for suggestions from her summer class of seven students.
"A boat in a goat," one student called out.
Colley corrected the student -- "I think you mean a goat in a boat" -- before finishing the question on the board. She then instructed students to write it out on their own boards, underline words that rhyme and to draw a quick picture of what a goat on a boat might look like.
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It was one example of a mini-lesson at the elementary school as about 1,000 Title I students in the Manatee County School District are spending this summer working to achieve grade-level reading and learn about science. This is the first summer all district Title I elementary schools are holding summer school for students entering kindergarten through third grade.
The summer camp is part of a larger district effort to help students at Title I schools, including hiring two dozen
technicians and offering summer camps for older students to help them achieve sustainable academic gains. In the last round of testing, a total of 1,175 students -- 29 percent -- of district third-graders fell into the bottom 20 percent statewide. Most students were low-income, don't speak English or have learning disabilities, prompting the need for extra efforts to help them succeed academically.
"We know that our kids are behind and need some remediation," said Megan Johnson, district Title I coordinator. "At the same time, they need some enrichment and something to be excited about."
Organizers planned for about 1,300 students and Johnson said she was pleased with the turnout. The elementary school camps were organized after Manatee County School Superintendent Diana Greene, then-deputy superintendent of instructional services, tasked the Title I team with it, Johnson said.
The free program runs Monday through Thursday through July 16 and focuses on bringing students up to grade-level reading through a science curriculum. The program is paid for by federal Title I funds and doesn't affect the district general budget. In addition to feeding the children breakfast and lunch, the grants cover teacher pay and science-related field trips.
"This is the first time we've done anything this large," Johnson said.
For the 2014-15 school year, 24 schools -- including some charters -- were designated Title I schools. Manatee Charter School will be designated a Title I school in the 2015-16 year, bringing the total to 25.
At the most recent Manatee County School Board meeting, members authorized creating jobs for "graduation enhancement technicians" at district Title I schools. The 25 technicians will work with guidance counselors and social workers to combat chronic absenteeism.
Title I money will pay for the technicians, so the new jobs will not affect the general budget.
Chronic absenteeism affects 31 percent of students at Title I schools, 3 percentage points higher than at non-Title I schools, said Elena Garcia, director of federal programs and grants. She said she's excited for the new positions, which will also help with issues other than absenteeism.
The Title I elementary program is one of seven summer programs paid for by the federal program and grant department, Garcia said. Camp Science and Nature Adventure program is for Title I students entering fourth and fifth grades. The department also runs two programs for students who don't speak English as their first language and three summer programs for migrant students.
"For Manatee, doing this many programs simultaneously is new," Garcia said. "Everybody in many departments stepped up to help."
All 15 traditional elementary schools are participating in the summer program and two of three Title I elementary charters, Just for Girls and Team Success, are as well. Visible Men Academy, a Title I elementary charter, is not participating because its school year hadn't ended in time to be part of the program, Johnson said.
At Bayshore on Wednesday, Todd Blackmore's first-graders were learning about savannas and the punctuating importance of periods.
With the class sitting on the reading carpet, Blackmore read about animals living in savannas in one breath, skipping over the places where periods should be.
"Oh my goodness that was so long," he said, out of breath. "Did that make sense?"
The class gave him thumbs down, so Blackmore tried it again, this time pausing where periods were circled in red marks.
"Why do you think it's important that we use our stop signs and periods? So that things make sense," he asked.
Teachers are reading and using grade-level texts for instructions. During the first week each child was tested for their reading level. Individual materials are aimed at helping bring the students up to their grade level.
The only requirements for the program, Johnson said, was a student must have attended a Title I school and deemed behind grade level.
"Most of these kids are between a half a year and a year and a half behind," she said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.