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Teen Court puts focus on reading

Called "Stepping Up,'' the plan is to provide tutors to help those who have difficulty reading. The program begins March 4.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


INVERNESS -- The truth became painfully clear as the 13-year-old struggled to read a simple paragraph.

Like all of the youths sent to Teen Court, the court alternative program for low-level juvenile offenders, the boy had to read aloud a statement swearing this had been his first arrest.

But those few sentences were too much for the middle-schooler, said Barbara Hinkle, interim assistant director of Teen Court.

She offered to read with him.

"He was a half a beat behind. He was just parroting everything I was saying," Hinkle said.

The example added strength to a theory she and Teen Court director Tom Moore have long believed: Children who struggle in school are more likely to act out and get in trouble.

Now Teen Court will offer a program to help those who have difficulty reading. Called "Stepping Up," it will consist of six 90-minute sessions with a tutor to address reading comprehension and organizational skills.

The program is slated to begin March 4.

In Teen Court, teenage offenders who have already admitted guilt are sentenced by a jury of their peers. There are currently two staples of a sentence: community service and jury duty at one or more of the weekly hearings. Other punishments, such as a written essay or a public apology, are also possible.

Now Moore and Hinkle will identify students who would benefit from the reading program, which will serve as part of their community service.

"We feel that by putting them into this program that we're actually doing a community service," Hinkle said.

The curriculum for Stepping Up was developed by Donna Kenady, a special education curriculum support teacher. The program is not geared toward teaching illiterate children to read; rather, it will sharpen reading comprehension and organizational skills for those who have trouble concentrating.

"It will focus on the things most readers do automatically," Kenady said.

For example, students will be told to ask themselves questions about what they read to determine if they really understand it, Kenady said. Also, they will be asked to recite important details in the passages they read.

As for organizational skills, the students will be taught strategies for managing their time wisely: Laying out their books the night before school so they don't have to rush in the mornings and ensuring they have all necessary school supplies with them every day.

As a former classroom teacher, Kenady said she sees a real need for the Teen Court reading program.

"I know that it's not only special education students that fall between the cracks as far as poor reading skills," she said.

While they do not keep statistics tracking poor reading skills and tendencies toward disciplinary problems, Moore said he has seen a steady downward trend in the grade point averages of Teen Court participants.

As of January 1999, the average GPA of a female was 2.42, while males weighed in at 2.26. As of January 2002, that had dropped to 2.35 for girls and 2.14 for boys.

"If kids' reading abilities improve, will they be less likely to act out or engage in substance abuse and tobacco use? I don't know, but we're going to give it a look," Moore said.

All of the tutors used in the program are volunteers. They will meet with the students once a week in one of the county's public libraries. At the end of the sessions, the student will be evaluated to see if he or she has improved.

Also, the youths must sign a waiver allowing their tutors access to their school records so attendance records and disciplinary reports can be monitored. Those will be checked to see if there is improvement once the program is completed.

Moore said they hope to start with between six and eight participants. They are currently operating with a $750 in-kind donation from the Citrus County Anti-Tobacco Partnership, for items such as office supplies and rewards for students. Also, Moore has set aside $1,000 in donations to be used for recruiting and training volunteers and curriculum development.

The reading program won't simply focus on students. Parents are also required to attend each of the tutoring sessions.

Hinkle said this will not only encourage students to be truthful to tutors about their homework and classroom habits, it will also make parents more interested in their children's academic future.

Both Moore and Hinkle say they hope the reading program will force students to think about their long-term goals, such as college, and give them the tools necessary to reach them.

"In Teen Court, we're not about crime and punishment," Moore said. "We're about making good life decisions."

-- Crime reporter Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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