Judith Bouchard is the reading coach at Hallmark Elementary School. Every day she works with teachers to assess children and come up with a lesson plan or goal for a particular student or a whole class that may be struggling with reading. And that struggle scares Bouchard.
“I worry about the kids that don’t catch up, because they know they’re behind,” Bouchard said. “They know life is going to be tough if they don’t read well.”
Bouchard is right. Reading is a fundamental tool that children must master in order to progress in their education.
“In kindergarten, first and second grade, children are learning to read,” Bouchard said. “In third, fourth and fifth grade they are reading to learn. If they don’t know how to read, the problem gets huge.”
Many of these struggling students are starting school unprepared.
“The challenge for us teachers is that so many kids are coming to school already behind,” Bouchard said. “There’s a lack of pre-school. I’m hopeful because I continue to see kids progress in their reading, but we still have a fair number still struggling.”
Wee Read and Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County (ELC) were created to help children develop scholastically and yet, according to the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR), 37 percent of children are not even ready for kindergarten.
Bold Reading Goals Set
In 2006, business and community leaders created Every Child A Reader in Escambia (ECARE). The original planning group partners included former School Superintendent Bill Maloy and his wife Nancy, School Board member John DeWitt, The Early Learning Coalition, Escambia County School District, Gulf Coast African American Chamber, Rotary Clubs of Pensacola and United Way of Escambia County. Judge John Parnham was the original chair.
The goals were that all children entering kindergarten in the Escambia County School District would be ready to start school as measured by current standards by 2011 and that by 2014 third-graders would have proficient scores on FCAT reading.
“We believe that if you truly want to make an impact you have to break the cycle,” said Ashley Bodmer, executive director of ECARE in an e-mail interview. “We saw there was a need for coordination among organizations in the community who were serving the same population. A business-led effort was necessary to not only coordinate efforts, but also to bring resources to the table. To make an impact you need resources–capital and volunteers. The business community’s involvement and engagement is necessary to leverage these resources.”
According to its tax returns, ECARE raised $235,984 as the end of 2009. “While roughly 25 percent of expenditures during this period funded literacy materials to benefit local children, it is clear that our largest expense has been staff,” Bodmer said.
“A volunteer board does not have the time to dedicate towards managing an organization. Knowing that our overall objective involved a lot of coordination, we recognized early on that staff was essential. We hired the first executive director $15,000 under budget.”
Overwhelmed by Task
But the original goals became overwhelming. There was not enough time and money.
“We didn’t intend to set a goal that couldn’t be accomplished,” Bodmer said. “At the time we were naïve to think that we could accomplish it that fast. This effort is more than a five-year process. This is an ongoing effort.”
“Within the first 12 months we saw how daunting it was going to be,” said John Hosman, chairman for ECARE. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we take little bites out of this big cookie?’”
While money was running out, the goals of ECARE were becoming harder to accomplish. The new measurement tool, FAIR, showed the district moving in the wrong direction.
FAIR is a program under the Florida Department of Education, which measures the percentage of incoming students unprepared for reading. It provides a consistent set of measures for grades 3-12 for teachers to guide instruction as well as a set of measures for K-2 that focuses on all interrelated elements of reading. Those elements include: phonemic awareness, which is the understanding that words are made up of sounds, phonics, fluency, reading accurately with a natural speed, vocabulary and text comprehension.
FAIR measures the success rate of children through a broad screening and monitoring tool for students from kindergarten through second grade. The students are given a three to five-minute task, which tests them in letter naming and sounds, phonemic awareness and word reading at the end of the year.
In 2008-2009, 25 percent of incoming children were not ready to read. In the 2009-2010 year that percentage rose to 37 percent.
The dirty, four-letter word, FCAT, didn’t fair too well either. In 2008-2009, 28 percent of third-graders got below a 3 on the 1-5 scale, and in 2009-2010 it rose to 30 percent. Students only need to make a 2 on the reading portion to pass, and in 2009-2010, 17 percent scored a 1.
But ECARE isn’t ready to throw in the towel.
“Our experiences to date have helped us gain an appreciation for how complex the problem is,” Bodmer said. “The initial philosophy was that we would capture kids born that year (2006) and help them get ready for kindergarten in five years. By 2014 those children would be in third grade.
“We set the goals and had the philosophy but not the strategy and initiatives to complement the goals and objectives. Once we got into it, we realized that it was a very daunting task.
However, Bodmer said those initial years weren’t wasted. “We have laid the groundwork over the last five years and have accomplished a lot. We have not been standing still.”
And with a fresh new start at tackling the illiteracy problem, new goals were born.
“We have shifted our focus toward determining which programs influence readiness,” Bodmer said.
“We always focused on measurement,” Hosman said. “But our measurement tools were countywide readiness scores, which are broad. It was about three years into this effort that we realized we needed to measure each initiative and each child’s success. When we started there was no way to see what programs little Johnny was participating in and how they improved his readiness scores.”
That shift resulted in a new program called Project Ready. Under the program, ECARE will put its focus toward kindergarteners at the Global Learning Academy, located at 100 North P St., and voluntary pre-kindergarten students within the downtown attendance zone.
“Our goal is that all children entering kindergarten at the Global Learning Academy will enter school ready to learn,” Bodmer said. “The primary objective of Project Ready is to facilitate effective partnerships toward this goal among all stakeholders: the school system, child care community, faith-based community, local businesses, government, community members and parents. The long-term outcome we anticipate is a model that can be successfully replicated in any elementary school zone in Escambia County and the state of Florida.”
ECARE has also enlisted the help of a founding partner, The Early Learning Coalition. The ELC was created to oversee federal and state funding for the subsidy child care and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. According to the ELC website, its mission is to meet the needs of children and families to lay the foundation for lifetime success by maximizing each child’s potential, preparing children to enter school ready to learn and helping families achieve economic self-sufficiency.
“The Early Learning community and the business community must work as a partnership if we are going to build a workforce of the future,” said ELC executive director Diane Hutcherson in an e-mail interview. “The two groups work as a team. The ELC concentrates on the children and the classroom practitioners that work with the children and parents each day. ECARE focuses on building community relationships to involve the whole community in economic development through the development of a literate, educated workforce.”
Together, ELC and ECARE will measure the existing developmental programs and help match a child with the program that best suits him.
Focus on Measurement
“Our focus is measurement, and we will collaborate with and across organizations to leverage strengths and results for our community,” Bodmer said.
“There is not one single approach that works best for all children or for all learning environments,” Hutcherson said. “The key is to find that balance of programs that work for groups of children and families and is affordable. Eighty-five percent of who you are is developed by the age of 5. We need to invest where it makes the most difference.”
One way to measure is by the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS). The QRIS was formed by a coalition of states and national organizations and can operate statewide or in a local area. According to QRISnetwork.org a complete QRIS includes: quality standards for programs and practitioners, supports and an infrastructure to meet such standards, monitoring and accountability systems to ensure compliance with quality standards, ongoing financial assistance that is linked to meeting quality standards and engagements and outreach strategies. Many other Florida counties have already adopted the system.
“Escambia County has some of the best early learning programs in the state,” Hutcherson said. “We also have some of the worst. QRIS will help parents know the difference. A child is only 3 once in their life. No parent can afford to waste a critical year in a child’s development searching for the right learning process.”
It’s not just measurements that are useful. Tangible help such as reading materials donated by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and one-on-one mentoring provide real results in little to no time. With Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, children receive a free hardback book delivered to their door free of charge. ELC schedules sign-up times and locations. Volunteers who have worked with ECARE have made an impact on students’ and educators’ lives.
“Community support is powerful,” said Dr. Sheree Cagle, principal of Hallmark and Yniestra Elementary Schools in an e-mail interview. “ECARE has provided Hallmark and Yniestra with a total of 113 volunteers. Mentors spend one hour a week with the same student and tutor the student in weak areas, but more important, they develop a relationship with a student and many times are the only positive role model in the child’s life.”
Focus on New School
Kindergarten students from Yniestra and Hallmark will attend the Global Learning Academy. Most of the children at these schools come from broken homes and receive a free or reduced lunch. Many parents of the students are working several jobs and have little time or resources to add to their children’s education outside of school. Right now, the Global Learning Academy is planning for two VPK classrooms with a total of 36 seats and six kindergarten classrooms with a total of 108 seats.
“About 98 to 100 percent of children entering in the Global Learning Academy receive a free or reduced lunch,” Hosman said. “Of about the 300 students only three percent of their families are still intact.”
“We have children coming to school who are hungry or don’t have proper supplies. Some are homeless,” Bouchard said.
What ECARE is hoping for is that the Global Learning Academy will become a one-stop resource center for parents. The elementary school will have grades pre-kindergarten to fifth grade with a total enrollment around 730 students. The school will have information on all of the programs available to them as well as the help of Bouchard.
Right now, parents are the missing piece of the puzzle. Children up to 5 years old are like sponges, and they soak up everything their parents say and do.
“We should be affecting parents, children and educational providers,” Hosman said. “Adding that parent piece is the next big step.”
“The parent is a child’s first teacher, so I would like to see us do more to help our parents,” Cagle said. “We have to create an environment where parents are comfortable coming to our schools and allowing us into their homes.”
However, it’s not that parents don’t care about their children.
“I can’t think of any parent that I’ve met that didn’t want better for their kids,” Bouchard said.
But with a high school drop-out rate of 27 percent according to the Florida Department of Education, it’s a challenge for parents to help their children because their own reading skills are lacking.
“Not all parents can read, and some may have two or three jobs and feel they don’t have the time or expertise to help their child,” Cagle added. “We have to help them understand that every conversation they have with their child is an educational experience. We have students who come to school who literally do not even know their names. It is so important that we teach our parents to talk to their children. Just talk to them when you are shopping, driving and cooking.
Let them know what you are doing so that you build their vocabulary.”
Engaging parents won’t be an easy task.
“The number one concern today and in the past is getting parents to understand their roles as their child’s first and most important teacher,” Hutcherson said. “When parents begin to understand the importance of talking to their child, reading to their child, sharing everyday experiences and helping their child form a positive self-image, then we can make positive gains in the numbers of children that enter public schools ready to learn and succeed.”
If children are the future, perhaps investing in their future will pay off and provide the workforce with educated employees.
“When fast-food businesses move to cash registers and computers with pictures because there are not enough employees who can read the printed directions, when 50 percent of job applicants cannot complete a written job application, when businesses struggle to find staff that can read equipment safety manuals–that is the pressure our community must face,” Hutcherson said. “If Escambia County is to grow, we have no choice but to ensure our children are succeeding.”
With the economic troubles of the United States and the state of Florida, it is better to do something now rather than later.
“State and federal resources are going to diminish in the next few years,” Hutcherson said. “We must take on creating a literate workforce as a community priority or there will be no economic development in the future.”
Getting New Message Out
ECARE has learned from its mistakes and is still on the crusade to raise literacy rates. On April 11, ECARE held an Early Learning Summit at Gulf Power Company’s Addison Auditorium. The event was to inform the community about the efforts of ECARE and the Project Ready program.
“The summit was great,” Hosman said. “We had about 60 people there including Mayor Hayward, Councilman Spencer and Malcolm Thomas. I am proud of the progress we’re making.”
Representatives for Gulf Power, Novak Enterprises, Early Bird Coalition, Pensacola Museum of Art, Sacred Heart, International Paper and Baptist Health Care were also in attendance. Superintendent Malcolm Thomas spoke, as did Sheree Cagle. ECARE and Peter Novak of Novak Enterprises discussed different ways of reaching out to parents through technology such as text messaging and videos. ECARE also presented their strengths and weaknesses in meeting their goals.
“Our strengths are the relationships we have with our partners,” Hosman said. “We’re all on the same page. We have our resources in place. But, we need more parental involvement.”
To break it down, ECARE needs support to be successful. Support from businesses, parents and the community. For ECARE to gain that support, the community needs to understand the grave situation.
“I’ve had business leaders say to me ‘I truly didn’t understand the situation we were in until now’,” Hosman said. “They need to know how this is holding Escambia County back.”
For those who understand the situation and work in it every day like Sheree Cagle, the success of ECARE is very important.
“Because ECARE has the ability to pool resources and bring organizations and individuals together for the good of a child, I feel the potential is unlimited,” Cagle said. “Children better prepared for school become citizens better equipped for life. What this will eventually mean to the community is beyond measure. We as educators who have high expectations and a limitless belief in children like to think anything positive is possible, therefore ECARE’s reach is unlimited.”