At Dunbar Elementary in Tampa, at-risk students Sing Out and Read to succeed

Watching her student's grin widen from ear to ear after he read a complete sentence is a special moment that Victoria Klug cherishes as a teacher.

"You should have seen his face," says Klug, known as Miss K to her students at Dunbar Elementary Magnet School. 

Only an instant before, the young boy had stated emphatically that he can't read. His accomplishment is worth singing about, which is exactly what he and five other students at Dunbar did on their summer break.

With Miss K as their coach, the students followed a 12-week karaoke-style software program made available by Sing Out and READ (SOAR), a Tampa-based nonprofit founded by Carlo Franzblau and his wife Beth Franzblau.

Through donations and grants, the nonprofit's Family Literacy Project, or FLiP, aids students age 6 to 12 who struggle with reading skills and come from at-risk, low-income families that can't afford tutors.

The program has proved successful for many students in Pinellas County. More recently, schools in Hillsborough County are adopting the program, including Dunbar, Tampa Bay Academy, Westshore Elementary School and Robles Park Elementary School.

Teaching children to read is a passion for Klug, a special education teacher who is now teaching first grade in a general education class at Dunbar. 

Some students who got the SOAR software had already been held back a year in school due to low reading skills. The program made a difference in those students' lives by boosting their reading grade level by at least a year in merely three months, Klug says. 

"It's wonderful,” she says. “It's life-changing."

Serendipitous timing

Klug learned about SOAR through a friend who knew Beth Franzblau, Carlo's wife and co-founder of SOAR. It was serendipitous. At a time when Klug felt discouraged about her students' reading progress, SOAR offered a new approach.

Students from the SOAR program at Dunbar Elementary Magnet School celebrate their success.She identified 12 students who struggled to read and had been retained a grade level or were in danger of being retained. Six were selected for the first program at Dunbar. Klug hopes to find donors who can help enroll more students.

Learning to read gives the students much more than a boost in reading scores, she says.

"We all like to splash around in a pool in Florida," Klug says. "It becomes so much more fun when you learn to swim."

It's the same for students who learn to read. 

"Being able to decode a sentence into complete words, they are doing it independently,” Klug says. “They are reading."

It builds confidence and even can change a child's unruly behavior, she says.

Carlo and Beth Franzblau established SOAR in 2019 after a news article exposed the low reading scores of Pinellas' public school students. According to the nonprofit organization's website, data shows that as many as two-thirds of the nation's students don't read at their grade level. Florida Department of Education numbers also show a troubling achievement gap, with Black students nearly 30 percent behind white students for reading at grade level. SOAR set its sights on shrinking that gap and boosting overall student literacy.

A family history of philanthropy 

The Franzblau family is a leader in the Tampa Bay area in supporting philanthropic causes. The family patriarch, the late Robert Franzblau, bought the struggling Thompson Cigar Co. in 1960 and turned it into the largest cigar catalog business in the world. 

Carlo Franzblau, who has an MBA from Harvard University, created Tune in to Reading software in 2006 as a way to help singers with pitch problems. He also had his own quest to hit the right tone when singing lullabies to his children.

He realized the software program could be easily adapted to aid struggling readers with a simple and musically fun set of lessons. Each student receives a tablet that is locked into the SOAR software. Over the 12 weeks, students complete a minimum of  900 minutes of lessons, or about 90 minutes a week.

“At the end, we celebrate their time and accomplishments,” says Melissa Mathe, development assistant for SOAR. “We unlock the tablet, and it is theirs to keep.”
At home, the SOAR software can be downloaded from an application store with a one-year free subscription.

Before starting the program, students’ reading and vocal range levels are assessed. They are given songs that are pegged to those levels but challenge them to do better.

“They tap on keywords and their definitions,” Mathe says. “They learn through repetition. They have to sing and listen three times before taking a quiz.”

Students get about six songs a week, sometimes more depending on their progress. Typically, SOAR likes to have 20 to 25 students participate in a 12-week program.
Though some students are hesitant at first, they find out how much fun it can be, Mathe says. And instruction is individually structured.

“This is not meant to be in a group setting. We’re not asking them to be performers,” she says. “They are not coming from a theater background.”

Rapid improvement over the summer

Students in the program typically read at a low-grade level and come from at-risk, low-income families who can’t afford to pay for tutors.

“Even if a student is in second grade, they may have a kindergarten reading level,” Mathe says.

Klug coached six of her Dunbar school students during the summer after an initial three weeks of practicing and learning the program at school. She received reports on their progress but also called frequently to encourage students who seemed to lag behind. She is preparing a pre- and post-report to send to Franzblau.

Klug says every student improved their reading level by at least one grade. Some did even better. One student completed 1,800 minutes, double what was asked of her.
Though some were shy at first about singing, Klug says all her students have enjoyed the tradition of karaoke Fridays in her classroom.

"I have a microphone I can Bluetooth,” she says. “They can rap poetry. We always did this in my classroom on Friday. We always had music as a reward, fun and a treat."

Many of the songs in the program were very basic and based on old lullabies or fables unknown to her students.

"So many students had never heard of 'Jack and Jill went up the hill,’" Klug says. "But they enjoyed these tales of childhood."

Still, SOAR is working to add more than 70 songs to its song bag with an ear toward what younger generations listen to daily. They will add a bit of country twang and hip-hop beats.

"Kids want more variety,” Mathe says.

Klug's focus is to keep the program moving forward at Dunbar so more at-risk students learn how fun it is to read.

She is considering a fundraising site, a tool often used by teachers to pay for school supplies. But donors also can contact SOAR and target funds to Dunbar.

"That is my hope to get funding for at least 10 students," Klug says. "If we're doing our jobs, they're learning positive things."

For more information, visit Sing Out and Read.
Editor's Note: 83 Degrees Media Publisher Diane Egner serves on the board of SOAR.
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.