Eliminating failure factories

James Martin

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The Winning Reading Boost program is looking for volunteers to help transform the lives of area elementary school students. The program aims to provide a way for educators, caring volunteers and engaged parents to ensure that students of Pinellas County’s most challenged schools are provided the fundamental right to read and learn.

In seeking active engagement for the five schools termed “Failure Factories” by the Tampa Bay Times, St. Pete community leaders, among them Kevin Gordon, Midtown and Downtown provost at St. Petersburg College and Rev. Clarence Williams, senior pastor of Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, contacted the University of Florida Lastinger Center.

Education, Eliminating Failure Factories, featuredAfter initial discussions, it became clear that reading was a top priority, a need that aligned well with the Lastinger Center expertise and the result was piloting the Winning Reading Boost program at Campbell Park, Melrose, Fairmount Park, Lakewood and Maximo Elementary Schools.

The program targets children in the third, fourth and fifth grades who have not yet learned to read. It is a semester long, 36-step process that helps children who are struggling to learn how to read and become confident, fluent readers. It incorporates the research-based principles of reading instruction including phonological awareness, systematic and explicit phonics instruction, fluency, and oral reading skills through its use of a multisensory, multimodal approach.

Students learn from engaging with music, songs, games, charts and appealing stories that are tailored to older students.  The program was developed in a partnership between University of Florida and author Sue Dickson, who was a schoolteacher.

“The idea is to teach them through song,” said James Martin of the University of Florida. “Song, music, games. Teach them with the sounds.” Martin is the community engagement coordinator and will help oversee the program.

He said by the time children get to the 36th step they can read just about any book, as they have learned to “decode” and breakdown words. The groups are broken down to 15 students and three teachers, so each teacher works with five students, and volunteers are available to cover for teachers or work with students individually. There are one-hour sessions for 90 days, the length of the semester.

The program has already been implemented at Melrose Elementary, and will be present at all five challenged schools this fall.

Students that might be candidates for the program are given a test to determine their skill levels, Martin said, and students with extremely low reading skills are selected to take part in the program. Those 15 students are given a pretest and a posttest to gauge their progress. To accommodate all five schools, Martin said the program would need about 150 volunteers.

Martin recalled one little boy in particular who could only recognize three out of 25 written words at the outset of the program and by the end of the process he cold spell and read “virtually anything.”

“He got to the point that if he could hear the sound, he could spell the word,” he said.

Martin, who has taught high school and middle school himself, said the change in the students is evident each day.

If you would like to volunteer, please contact James Martin at jamartin2@coe.ufl.edu or 727-798-0327.

You can volunteer as little as one or two hours a week, or more if you prefer and walk hand-in- hand with these children as they experience a unique journey that will improve their reading fluency.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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