Managed by Lutheran Services Florida, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County’s seven Family Resource Center locations spread across the county are hubs for community-driven and community-focused programs that give children a foundation for success and support the family.
An educational program the Family Resource Centers introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic drives that point home.
Earlisha Oates, a member of the Community Advisory Council for the Central Tampa Family Resource Center in Ybor City and the vice president of community engagement for the Hillsborough County PTA, recalls the same idea popping up from different corners of the county: start after-school tutoring programs in the communities where families live to help elementary and middle school students make up or avoid the learning loss associated with COVID, often dubbed the pandemic slide.
“What has to be done and be offered to get the kids on level and, if not all the way on level, get them caught up on what they lost during COVID and e-learning time?” Oates says.
This was the kind of community feedback Oates and other advisory council members bring to the table for the Family Resource Centers to launch a new program filling a community need. In this case, that program was math and writing tutoring to help 2nd through 8th graders who were testing below grade level.
Bilingual professional tutors with community provider A!SLS Success Through Learning & Support offer free, after-school tutoring at all seven resource center locations. They first spend an hour on group and individual tutoring for elementary school students and then work for an hour with the middle schoolers. Like other educational and learning programs the Family Resource Centers offer, students go through pre- and post-testing to measure progress.
“Every time we use them, the report that they give us is every child goes up at least one grade level in their mathematics,” says Emily Tinti, the programming manager for the Family Resource Centers. “We’ve seen a lot of success through that program.”
Serving the family and community
In some ways, the tutoring program stands apart from other educational and learning programs offered at the Family Resource Centers. It serves students through 8th grade, while other initiatives are geared for children ages 0-8.
Tyheshia Scott, director of the Family Resource Centers, says while most programs at the centers typically focus on that developmental age, there are also initiatives in place to continue to support older children as they move through school.
“And while we don’t necessarily call the programs after-school programs, they are done in the after-school hours because we want to make sure the community has access to the programs we have available,” Scott says.
Educational programming at the centers also includes a trio of programs for children grades K-2. Sighting Sight Words is an eight-week course that uses hands-on, fun activities to teach children to learn and memorize common sight words they’ll see while reading. Educational programs typically focus on children up to age 8 and use games and activities to make learning fun and engaging.
Math Mania employs games and activities to hone addition and subtraction skills, while developing social skills and academic confidence. Fun With Phonics is an early literacy initiative that teaches children how to pronounce sounds and blend those sounds together to create words.
“One really unique thing about these classes is that parents and caregivers are really involved, not just in knowing the measurement outcomes of their child’s success, but also in the classes themselves,” Tinti says. “We really want the parents and caregivers to learn with their child. Not just for bonding, but so they can learn these techniques and get ideas to carry on the education at home with their child.”
She says the friendly, welcoming environment of the resource centers makes learning fun while sticking to a structured program. Bottle caps, toilet paper rolls, shaving cream, grains of rice, food coloring and refrigerator magnets are some of the household items used to make creative tools that help the learning process.
“It doesn’t necessarily feel like school,” Tinti says. “It’s fun but they're getting learning out of it.”
Scott says the program introduces “fun activities you can do at home without breaking the bank.”
“We want to show families how they too can take a hands-on, active fun role and make education fun for their children so it doesn’t feel like a chore or a task,” she says.
A look at the pandemic slide
The concerns about the impact COVID-related disruptions could have on student learning and children’s socialization were on the Children’s Board radar from the early days of the pandemic. Scott says the Family Resource Centers remained open to serve families and the community while following Centers for Disease Control guidelines and regulations
“We are seeing the effects of the pandemic on some of the children now,” she says. “It’s being reflected in some of their testing scores. But even younger children, they’re missing out on that socialization, which is so important at younger ages. That’s the beauty of the centers being open. The families were able to bring their children into a safe environment and make sure their children could get that socialization.”
As for the concerns over a decline in student performance because of COVID-related disruptions that led to the tutoring program, national test scores released this fall brought the issue of the pandemic slide into sharp focus.
Earlier this year, National Assessment of Educational Progress testing of 4th and 8th graders in reading and math, more commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, was conducted for the first time since 2019, before COVID. Results released in late October showed national declines in student scores in both reading and math for the 4th and 8th grades. Nationally, students had the largest-ever decline in math scores for both the 4th and 8th grades, and the percentage of students performing below the basic skill level increased. Nationwide, reading scores also declined, not as substantially percentage-wise as math, but back to 1992 levels.
Statewide in Florida, 4th and 8th-grade math scores declined at a rate in line with national numbers. Fourth-grade reading scores held steady, while the decrease in 8th-grade reading scores was comparable to the national average.
Hillsborough County’s overall scores were below 2019 and 2011 levels, and a lower percentage of students performed at the “basic” and “proficient” levels than in those years. The Nation’s Report Card did show an ongoing achievement gap, with Black students scoring 33 points lower than white students and Hispanic students 21 points below. A significantly lower percentage of Black and Hispanic students reached the “basic” or “proficient” benchmarks.
At the same time, Hillsborough County Public Schools performed better than the majority of its peer districts. There was no significant decline in reading or math scores for 4th graders, who had the highest scores in those subjects among 26 large urban school districts in the country. Likewise, 8th-grade reading scores did not decline noticeably, ranking third in the country among the large school districts. Eighth-grade math scores, however, declined at a rate above the national average.
For more information go to Family Resource Centers and The Nation's Report Card