Launched in Pinellas, early literacy program becomes model for Florida school districts

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

The first story in the series profiles the Pinellas Early Literacy Initiative, which the Pinellas Education Foundation launched in collaboration with Pinellas County Schools.
An early literacy program created by the Pinellas Education Foundation and Pinellas County Schools has grown into a model for other Florida districts.

The Pinellas Early Literacy Initiative (PELI) initially launched during the 2021-22 school year, using a reading method developed by the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida. The schools where the research-based program has been implemented so far are seeing promising results in reading proficiency among kindergarten to second-grade students. 

“I’m excited about the early data,’’ says Cassandra Murphy Atkins, reading and language arts specialist with Pinellas County Schools. “It gets me motivated to continue the work and I think it gets our teachers motivated to continue the work…. We’ll all breathe a sigh of relief once we start seeing the results year after year after year.”

Students in the first eight schools where PELI launched have had two years of reading under the program and are showing improved reading proficiency, Murphy Atkins says. The next eight schools, which started the program in the 2022-23 school year, are also showing progress.

“We saw double-digit increases in proficiency on the STAR (Standardized Test for Assessment of Reading) assessment in all grade levels at the new schools. We saw the same growth in K-2 (kindergarten to second grade) at the first eight schools this year.’’ 

In the 2022-23 school year, 16 elementary schools, three community-based pre-k centers and 399 teachers and administrators participated in PELI, with the program reaching 4,176 school children.

Two more schools are starting the program this school year. The school district is also working to build partnerships and train teachers at 14 voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) programs in the community.

Closing the gap

PELI is in Title 1 schools serving economically disadvantaged children who often struggle with early reading proficiency. Teachers are using what’s called the Flamingo Model, teaching children in small groups.

An important aspect of the program is that it includes professional learning experiences for administrators, coaches and teachers. Coaches from the Lastinger Center taught principals, assistant principals, teachers and literacy specialists in the method. They assessed the progress of the administrators and teachers and coached them to refine the technique. Those Pinellas educators are now coaches for others as the program grows.

The goal is to close the gap between struggling students and others and increase the overall number of students who are reading on grade level by the time their progress is assessed in third grade.

“We’ve consistently grown in our k-2 data across both years, both in proficiency and in closing our different opportunity gaps,’’ Murphy Atkins says.

“In our first eight schools, kids that had teachers that were learning the things in PELI and then went from second grade to third grade, they just took the new state assessments this year and we had growth in six out of eight schools,” she says. “But we had four out of the eight schools that had a double-digit growth, so that’s pretty exciting.”

She expects to see larger gains as the program continues into year three and beyond. The children now starting third grade are building on the progress they made in first and second grade.

“I think we’re seeing some good stuff,” she says.

A model for other school districts

PELI has its roots in a stakeholder meeting the school district organized in 2020 to discuss early literacy and how to help prepare children entering kindergarten for success in early grades and beyond. Following that, the Pinellas Education Foundation, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders and community members that creates programs to boost student and teacher success, brought together a committee to look for innovative ways to make improvements. 

Beginning with that effort, the Pinellas Education Foundation pioneered a program that is now being used as a model by other school districts in the state. Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota, Lee and Palm Beach counties are among them, says Paige Pullen, chief academic officer and literacy principal at the center.

Murphy Atkins says the school system is lucky to have a comprehensive system of support and training from UF’s Lastinger Center. The method, developed over decades, marked a return to teaching reading by using phonics – sounding out letters and word parts.

“There was a time period where that was less a part of the curriculum, so we got away from a phonics approach and moved to what’s called whole language, where educators were teaching more of a whole word method and meaning-based as opposed to really attending to letters and sounds. Now we’re moving back to what you would call a more phonics-based approach,’’ Pullen says.

But more than phonics goes into reading proficiency these days, she notes.

“Over the last several decades we’ve learned a lot about how the reading process works and how to teach reading,’’ Pullen says.

The Big Six

The components of what educators call the science of reading are known as the “Big Six”: oral language; phonological awareness (the ability to recognize sounds in spoken language); phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

“Some people call it the Big Five, but the Big Five leaves out oral language development. The Big Six in the state of Florida includes oral language development,’’ Pullen says.

She says that when the National Reading Panel came out with the Big Six in 2000, teachers saw it as separate components of reading.

“Really, we can’t separate those. We need to understand how the reading process works and how all of the components of reading work together. We have worked with teachers in Pinellas County to learn about each of the components and how they work together to develop skilled readers. First of all, we do teach them what are each of those components. We focus on the best practices for teaching oral language development, phonemic awareness, early (word) decoding skills, advanced decoding skills, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension in a comprehensive approach.’’

Teachers need to help children integrate all of the sub-skills that are required for skilled reading, she says.

“Teachers analyze students’ data on a regular basis and make instructional decisions based on that data to ensure that they are teaching the students exactly what they need,” Pullen says.

The Lastinger Center of Learning has three goals: kindergarten readiness; reading on level by third grade; and Algebra 1 in ninth grade.

“We know that each of those three milestones are critical to the individual’s success in life,’’ she says. “We know that children who meet those goals are more likely to go on to college and find success in school and in life.’’

Murphy Atkins says teachers using the model start with 4-year-olds.

“In a four-year-old class, we’re going to do a lot more language activities,’’ she says. “We’re going to involve them in a lot more oral language and storytelling and building their sense of vocabulary and turn-taking when engaging in a conversation. And in first grade, we’re going to be much heavier in phonics.”

As students go through the grade levels, the sophistication in the skills gets increased, but the knowledge that the teacher has is still the same whether they teach VPK or second grade, she says.

“So we are making sure they are getting a comprehensive approach to literacy, not valuing one of those six components over the other,’’ she says.

They’re helping teachers understand that the Big Six work together to make a fluent reader, which is the goal.

“We want to get them to a place where they don’t think it’s hard,’’ she says. “That they just love reading and writing for the rest of their lives.’’
For more information, go to Pinellas Education Foundation PELI and Lastinger Center for Learning.
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.