Helping Florida's young readers through the pandemic and beyond

From Berenstain Bears to Bronte, developing the ability to make meaning from letters on a page has lasting implications. It’s no secret that the effects of childhood reading struggles can linger for a lifetime and translate to poverty, joblessness, and/or food and housing insecurity. COVID-19 has threatened to make the pandemic of page-turning even more tumultuous for struggling students.

Here are some of the extra efforts being done to help Tampa Bay Area kids hit the books (and comprehend what’s inside) and how you can help.

Focus on the ALICE population to combat slide

In a typical Fall, children return to school having experienced more of a summer slide than a fall down a pandemic precipice. Students have never been expected to retain 100% of information learned throughout the prior school year; summer is for new experiences that crowd out some of that knowledge, after all. That slow slide can usually be remedied with a review of old material before new information was introduced.

Then COVID-19 hit last March; school shutdowns followed. Frustrated students began to struggle and fall even further behind. Challenges like digital learning snafus morphed a Spring semester from one that could have boosted a struggling reader to a standstill-mode scenario. The result was a summer slide kicked into gear months earlier than usual.
Before 3rd grade:
Learn to read.
3rd grade onward:
Read to learn.

“It’s estimated that nationally, kids came back to school this year with 70% of what they would have begun with otherwise,” says Ellen Zinzeleta, Director of Education Strategies at United Way Suncoast (UWS).

How much further behind kids are now and going into the new year is still being assessed.

The answer to the issue of struggling readers, Zinzeleta says, has never completely centered on reading itself; the skill isn’t acquired in a vacuum. That’s why the United Way Suncoast (UWS) is focusing on the population they’ve dubbed ALICE: Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. A person who falls under ALICE designation is just barely surviving, narrowly meeting basic needs. A substantial amount -- 43% of households in the central west coast of Florida -- fall under this umbrella. Statewide, the number is 46% (based on 2019 data).

How will 2020 trend for ALICE? The numbers aren’t available yet, but it’s clear that children of ALICE living amid food or housing insecurity simply may not be able to add ‘reading prowess’ to their plates. UWS focuses on making overall living conditions better so that children in this category are given the opportunity to thrive. This endeavor has always been all-encompassing, and the pandemic demands ever-creative solutions.

An example of a pandemic pivot is Seminole Elementary’s afterschool reading program move to virtual. This particular program has been in effect for nearly a decade with United Way support; a recently retired St. Petersburg College professor of reading is now at the helm. The program is poised to be more focused than ever before and is accepting volunteers.

A working example of UWS’s effort to boost grade-level reading, Seminole Elementary was chosen by community partners and UWS to act as a sort of microcosm: If children can be boosted to reading at grade level here, the strategies would be replicated at other schools. These strategies include the distribution of ‘bridge books,’ which the organization donates to families, and a recent collaboration with Feeding Tampa Bay to distribute 1,500 meals weekly on the school campus. 

In addition to the elementary school reading support and overall wellbeing outreach, work is being done in Wimauma to strategically support the migrant and immigrant population there. Overall, no matter the population demographic, assisting whole families helps give the youngest members a better chance at school success. And that, Zinzeleta says, is the overriding goal.

“We can’t forget our children throughout this pandemic,” she says. “They still need to learn, or they’re not going to be successful.”

Launch of the Florida Gap Map by the Florida Chamber Foundation

When Spring is sprung, the number two pencils traditionally get a fresh sharpening; Florida’s public school students prepare for tests galore. The little Sunshine State pupils breathed a collective sigh of relief in 2020 when state tests were canceled due to the coronavirus. Those assessments would have demonstrated which readers were lagging behind, but adding test anxiety to a national pandemic emergency seemed cruel and unusual punishment. 

Thanks to the Florida Gap Map, community leaders still have a forecast of how many students need the most help, where they are, and how to reach them. What can we do to assist 100% of Florida students to read at grade level? Mark Wilson, President and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, posed the question during a virtual rollout of the online tool. The first of its kind in the nation, the Florida Gap Map gives the public a clear view of where resources can be best employed to elicit change.

It zeroes in on third-graders with eagle-eye precision. Within a few clicks, anyone can view how many children did not pass the third-grade reading assessment with a grade of three or higher. This data pinpoints exactly where the most need exists for intervention. And that’s where the Foundation’s Business Alliance for Early Learning and the Florida Chamber’s Prosperity Initiative come into play. 

“We clearly have equity gaps in our country,” Wilson says. “By focusing on creating equality in every ZIP code, we can be strategic in how community partners can step in.”

Reading prowess is a goal that, as Zinzeleta explained, will not be reached by merely tossing reading strategies toward struggling students. The need for a holistic focus is apparent: Only 58% of Florida’s third-graders are reading on or above grade level. To zero in on who needs the most assistance and the best means to help, the Florida Gap Map includes data from 983 zip codes. Poverty levels for children under the age of 18 are visible on the map, and it’s simple to see how a particular school is faring; simply select it and zero in on particular classrooms. The tool takes into account the latest data available. 

Wilson calls upon community and business leaders to use the tool as a means to identify and assist those who are most vulnerable. Florida’s youngest must excel at reading in order to grow the state’s future economy, he says, and businesses can help by addressing all the components that can lead to a child’s reading challenges.

The Chamber maintains a goal of slashing poverty in half and supporting 100% of third-graders to read at grade level within the next decade. Imagine a high school class in 2030 with reading levels that allow them the opportunity to enter college or employment competitively: It’s this type of long-range goal that the Chamber’s Business Alliance for Early Learning and the Florida Prosperity Initiative foresee. 

The community can help. Adopting a school or a classroom can now be a strategic outreach endeavor based on the Florida Gap Map data. If poverty is an issue where third-grade scores lag, for instance, plans can be made to address it strategically. In other spots where correlations are different but third-grade scores as still low, investigating why is paramount.

“Business leaders: we now can work together and brainstorm,” Wilson says. “Let’s use the information we have -- the future workforce of Florida depends on it.”

Florida Children’s Council: Working toward grade-level reading proficiency

As the director of Grade Level Reading for the Florida Children’s Council/Florida’s Grade-Level Reading Campaign, one of Jennifer Faber’s priorities is getting local business leaders involved. The future of their city’s economy depends on it, she says. Each of the 30 counties that participate across Florida makes a community action plan specific to their unique challenges.

“Tampa used to try to be everything to everyone,” Faber says. “Then they looked at the data and said: 'Let’s focus where we need to'.”

The Council partners with the Florida Chamber; both were pivotal in the launch of the Florida Gap Map. And as COVID-19 kept children out of classrooms and concerns about grade-level reading mounted, her office partnered with the University of Florida and Florida State University to generate a massive amount of supplemental material -- all virtual, of course. There are tip sheets for parents, online video strategies to enhance learning prowess, and approximately 50 videos full of tips.

“We need to invest early in our children and their education,” she says. “That third-grade reading level marker is so important.”

Supplemental links for parents/caregivers:
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Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and author of children’s books that encourage the next generation to attend college. When not indoctrinating youth about the necessity of higher education, she enjoys exploring the paradise that is her St. Petersburg home. She holds a degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida and a Masters in Secondary English Education from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in such venues as the Tampa Bay Times. Children’s Book Titles by Amy Hammond include: When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Gator; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a ‘Nole; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Bull; When I Grow Up, I’m Bama Bound; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Tiger.