Make Reading Cool

Gulf Coast


What does it take to transform a child’s life? In the case of first-graders who struggle the most with reading and writing, it takes well-trained trained teachers, generous donors and school district leaders willing to invest in solutions. Here in Sarasota County, through an initiative called Reading Recovery, this potent combination is not only improving students’ lives, it’s also changing their families, teachers and the entire school district for the better.

Reading Recovery is an intensive, short-term literacy program that involves daily, one-on-one tutoring by highly trained teachers for the poorest-performing first graders. (First grade is key, because that’s when most children are learning to read. By third grade, they are reading to learn.) It’s also proven to be most effective when made available to all students who need it and used as a supplement to good teaching in the classroom.

Reading Recovery was introduced to our school district two years ago by philanthropists Keith and Linda Monda. They knew from experience elsewhere (and decades of rigorous evaluation data) that this early intervention works in helping low-achieving students quickly catch up their peers, and that those gains stick.

Sandee Coward, one of our district’s first Reading Recovery teachers, recently shared an example of that success in action at Atwater Elementary School in North Port: “One of my students told me, ‘Ms. Coward, I remember when I was in kindergarten how much I hated to read. I didn’t like when I had to sit and do the words. It didn’t make sense. Now I can’t wait to get books in the Media Center, and I know the answers to the questions. Reading is cool!’”

What a difference a year can make. Or, more precisely, 12 to 20 weeks, for that’s how long students typically spend in Reading Recovery. As soon as a student achieves grade-level reading, the lessons are discontinued and another student enters the curriculum. It’s that fast and effective.

Even better news is that our 10 Sarasota County elementary schools where Reading Recovery was available last year are performing 11 percent higher than the national average (an 86-percent success rate versus the national average of 75 percent).

This school year, thanks to the long-term commitment of the School Board and a generous grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation to accelerate implementation, all 23 elementary schools in our district have Reading Recovery teachers on staff. That’s what excites me most about this growing initiative: the promise of systemic change on which it is delivering. Ms. Coward says Reading Recovery has transformed more than just her students. It is also impacting their families, her and other teachers, and the school district itself.

Another Atwater teacher, Julie Sardo, had this to add: “The students tell me how they are reading to their families at night. Many have stories about reading to extended family over the phone and how proud their family is of them. Most of all, they are proud of themselves and feel like they are a part of their class instead of that ‘low group kid’ who doesn’t fit in.

“I have also talked with many of their parents who are amazed at the progress their children have made,” she continued. “They tell me how their children are attempting to read everything from cereal boxes to road signs just because they can. The students are noticing print everywhere.”

Yes, reading is cool! And transformational. As is the success that comes from co-investing with good partners in a proven solution that helps those in our community who need it most.

Mark Pritchett is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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