Pinellas schools closing the gender gap in reading with classroom strategies, a little competition

Pinellas Education Foundation and 83 Degrees Media have an underwriting agreement to spotlight Education Foundation programs that work toward equitable education achievement, economic prosperity and future success for all students.

This story profiles the Closing the Gap program, which uses research-based, results-driven teaching strategies, teamwork and competition to boost elementary school boys' interest and scores in reading. 
The National Football League has the Super Bowl; Major League Baseball has the World Series; college basketball has the NCAA tournament. 

For Pinellas County Schools, there’s the Boys Read Book Battle. The annual competition for elementary school boys in grades 3-5 uses teamwork and competition to pique boys’ interest in reading, crowning one school's team as the district’s reading champion. In late January, Pinellas County Schools capped this year’s Celebrate Literacy Week events with the fifth Boys Book Battle finals. Safety Harbor Elementary won first place; Lealman Avenue Elementary claimed second; teams from Curlew Creek Elementary and McMullen Booth Elementary tied for third. 

The Boys Book Battle’s growing popularity - this year’s competition attracted 47 schools - has spawned a high school Guys Read Book Battle. Next school year, a middle school program begins.

Closing the Gap

The popular Boys Read Book Battle started with schools assisted by the Closing the Gap program and has grown to a districtwide competition open to teams from all Pinellas County elementary schools.The competition is fun and exciting but there’s a serious purpose behind it - narrowing the gender achievement gap in reading, a subject where boys lag behind girls in Pinellas and across the country. The event has its roots in Closing the Gap, an initiative Pinellas Education Foundation partnered with the school district to launch a decade ago after the nonprofit Foundation put out a report shining a light on the reading achievement gap. 

“We’ve been committed to closing the gender-based achievement gap for about 10 years now,” says Pinellas Education Foundation CEO Kim Jowell. “It started in 2013-14 when we released a white paper on the subject. We also did a series of symposiums around the community to raise awareness of the disparity in reading achievement between boys and girls. The issue wasn’t just in Pinellas County. It was a nationwide trend that boys were trailing behind girls, specifically in literacy.”

During the 2014-15 school year, Pinellas Education Foundation established the Gender Achievement Gap Committee, now known as the Closing the Gap Committee, a group of business leaders, community members and school district officials that works for strategies and solutions to close the reading achievement gap.  

“The program is focused on instructional strategies,” Jowell says. “It’s about the professional development of teachers.” 

Some long-time Pinellas Education Foundation board members have dedicated years to the cause. Board member Jim Myers and former board member Sebastian Dortch spent years leading the Closing the Gap Committee as it collaborated with the school district to develop and implement a research and results-driven program. 

In 2015, Pinellas Education Foundation brought in Dr. Leonard Sax, an expert on gender differences in learning and the gender gap in achievement, for a presentation to district and school administrators and a workshop with teachers. In 2017, Pinellas Education Foundation contracted with LitLife, a firm specializing in educational professional development and instructional support on literacy programs, to work with school district staff to develop the foundation of a rubric outlining evidence-based classroom strategies. Pinellas Education Foundation’s Closing the Gap Committee has also used donor support to fund training in gender-tailored teaching strategies and school grants to support instruction.

The most visible and exciting part of Closing the Gap is the Boys Read Book Battle, which started with the schools receiving grant support through the program before expanding to be open to all elementary schools in the district. 

“It ties into competition; it ties into the gamification of the classroom,” says Pinellas County Schools Director of Student Demographics, Assignment, and School Capacity Ellen Truskowski, who coordinates the district’s work on Closing the Gap. “It’s turned into a really exciting event.”

A growing impact

Closing the Gap started with six Pinellas elementary schools and now works with teachers in 22 schools. The program’s grants directly impact more than 4,500 students and more than 280 teachers.  

It has produced results. Truskowski says during the 2017-18 school year, there was an 11 percent gap separating boys and girls on English Language Arts (ELA) standardized testing. For the 2022-23 school year, that gap had narrowed to 5 percent, she says. 

At Belcher Elementary, which has been part of the program from the beginning, boys’ scores in ELA testing have, over time, gone from 10 percent below girls' scores to two percent above, Jowell says.

In 2021, the Florida Legislature passed a law directing the Florida Department of Education to establish the Task Force on Closing the Achievement Gap for Boys to take a state-level look at the gender achievement gap and recommend strategies for solutions. A report from Helios Education Foundation, a nonprofit group working to help more students in Florida and Arizona succeed in postsecondary education, and research firm WestEd highlighted Closing the Gap as a program putting research and evidence-based strategies into action.

“This is an example of what can happen when community members, business leaders and the Foundation connect and collaborate with the district to come up with creative and innovative ways to move the needle,” Jowell says. Pinellas Education Foundation CEO Kim Jowell.“This is work that we started here because of the care we have for our students. But it was community partners who supported it financially, served on the committee and were partners with the district in creating something that has continued to grow.”

Different strategies to help children succeed

Each year, more than 100 Pinellas teachers participate in professional development training through Closing the Gap.
That training focuses on identifying the differences between how boys and girls learn. Chemical differences in their serotonin and dopamine levels and structural differences in their brains all impact how they learn. For example, lower serotonin and higher dopamine levels can negatively impact learning. 

“Are there strategies we can implement to increase serotonin?” Truskowski says. “How do you help manage when there’s too much dopamine and they’re revved up and raring to go? Are there strategies we can do to help get them back on task?”

She says more and more research shows that incorporating activity and movement into classroom learning is a successful strategy for boys. 

“There’s a lot of research out there right now that ties and aligns learning and movement,” Truskowski says. The more you are able to involve movement in the classroom, the more likely it is that they’ll remember the topic.”

In 2022,  the Closing the Gap initiative added a micro-credentialing program for teachers in gender-differentiated instruction. The 18-hour, six-class program is the first of its kind in the state. Nearly 50 teachers have completed it so far. The micro-credentialing program focuses on literacy strategies, student engagement and brain research “to help implement learning practices in the classroom that support gender-specific learning,” according to Pinellas Education Foundation.

“We try to focus on the brain piece of it because if our teachers understand the brain piece then they’re more understanding of the changes they need to make in their instructional practices,” says Pinellas County Schools Magnet and Curriculum Coordinator Bonnie Taylor. “Then we give them ideas for instructional practices that align with that. The teachers are very open to it because they see it daily in their classrooms.”

Truskowski says it’s also important that the ongoing collaboration with Pinellas Education Foundation to boost boys’ interest and skills in reading doesn’t have unintended negative impacts on girls’ learning.

“We’re trying to reach every student,” she says of the collaboration. “Yes, we’re trying to close that gap but we also don’t want to leave our girls behind. So what strategies can we do that will engage everyone, not just our boys but our girls as well…It’s been a really collaborative effort.  I feel we have been able to take some of their ideas and create something unique that is hopefully making a difference for all of our students, not just our boys.”

For more information, go to Closing the Gap.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.