Sound parallel efforts to improve early learning in Manatee County

Manatee County's community-driven partnership with Sarasota County in the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading cannot have a fast enough impact here -- as evidenced by the troubling news this week from the Manatee school district.

An inordinate number of the county's third-graders -- 1,175 -- are at risk of retention since they ranked among the bottom fifth of student scores on this spring's state test. That figure represents 29 percent of the district's third-grade population, the highest percentage of flagged students over the previous three years.

Statewide, the bottom-fifth percentages ranged from a low of 7 to a high of 33. Manatee district percentages have been rising by one point annually since 2012, the wrong trajectory.

But those students have several opportunities to move on to fourth grade through a positive review of their portfolio of work. Should that not occur, students can attend summer school and then take another test.

This small increase should be discounted since the state adopted a more rigorous test based on the freshly implemented Florida State Standards, a close relative to Common Core. The increase in poor scores was not unexpected.

Manatee schools Superintendent Diana Greene pointed out the district's ongoing challenge in a report by Herald education writer Meghin Delaney: "Third grade traditionally for us has been our grade level where we have most of our students struggling."

According to education literature, student achievement by the third grade is a key barometer for gauging future career success. Comprehension of the written word by third grade is also an essential element to earning a high school diploma.

The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, part of a national effort with Manatee County new to the effort, focuses on children's reading skills from infancy to third grade.

Although public schools must be held accountable for student achievement, societal challenges create barriers outside the classroom. In our district's dire situation with potential third-grade retention, almost 70 percent of the flagged students either are not native English speakers or have been linked to learning disabilities. Coming from poverty-stricken families, 88 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The district is poised to boost services and initiate programs to support these students, Greene pointed out. one such strategy began this year, with summer school in every Title 1 elementary school for students from pre-kindergarten to third grade. The district also launched pre-kindergarten for Title 1 students this past school year. This makes Pre-K enrollment simpler for parents who lack the wherewithal to find a private Pre-K program, which are all free thanks to the state.

The number of children in Manatee County deemed "not kindergarten ready" ranks 5 percentage points above the statewide average of 28 percent. Pre-K has proven to be invaluable for student progress as they move through grade levels. That Manatee percentage represents the 3,547 children who are starting the education already behind their peers.

The national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading acknowledges that schools cannot succeed alone. The Manatee County school district is one of more three dozen community partners in the campaign.

The community coalition is working on a parallel path to the district's goals by aiming to boost school readiness and focusing efforts on the poor neighborhoods surrounding Title 1 schools.

The mobilization of an engaged community combined with public school efforts will best serve to reverse poor test scores and improve student achievement. We believe that combined, these public-private strategies should bear fruit soon.