tampabay.com

Seeking their futures in a book

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published July 9, 2006


INVERNESS -- On the last day of summer reading camp, teacher Becky O'Connell gave her students coupons for free ice cream and a free meal at Applebee's.

She also gave each one a certificate that says "I Did It!"

But while O'Connell and two other teachers were congratulating some students on a job well done Friday, principal Marlise Bushman was in another room at Pleasant Grove Elementary School calling parents whose children will have to repeat third grade.

Throughout the district, 15 third-graders are being held back because of poor reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. For those students, attending summer camp and performing well was the last chance at promotion to fourth grade.

Speaking from experience, O'Connell said students don't take the news well initially but eventually understand that repeating third grade is for their own good.

"I try to tell them, 'It's not that you've done something wrong. It's just that you need another year to become a better reader,' " she said.

Thirty students who went to reading camp will advance to fourth grade, including five who scored high enough on an alternate test given at the end of camp. The rest are being promoted for what the state calls "good-cause" reasons, which include students who had already repeated

a grade or those with disabilities or limited English skills.

Since 2003, Florida has been holding back third-graders who fail FCAT reading. Those students can avoid repeating third grade by going to district-run reading camps during the summer.

This year, 45 Citrus third-graders who scored at the lowest level in reading were invited to camp. Last year, the number was 51, and 34 ended up being held back.

Citrus goes one step further and also invites struggling readers in the first and second grades.

The goal, school officials said, is to help those students catch up so they're prepared for the FCAT as third-graders. The long summer break can hurt students, especially those who are already struggling with reading skills that require regular practice, experts say.

During the summer camp, students work on building their vocabulary and fluency. They keep a daily journal and read books aloud with a teacher and also in small groups.

At the end, those students have a chance to advance to fourth grade by passing a test.

"The students know that the pressure is on," said Michelle McHugh, one of the three teachers working with Inverness Primary third-graders at Pleasant Grove. "But it's not intimidating because they are comfortable with us."

Kathy Pomposelli, the Title I coordinator in Citrus, said the small classes keep students alert and engaged.

"Each student knows that that teacher knows them inside out," Pomposelli said. "When you got 20 students during the regular year, you get to know them, but it takes time."

For all 330 students who participated in the summer camps, the day started at 8 a.m. and ended shortly after noon.

O'Connell, who teaches at Inverness Primary, liked to begin the day by having students write in a journal. When Tropical Storm Alberto was making its way toward Florida, she had them write about how their families were preparing for a possible hurricane.

O'Connell and the other teachers also came up with creative assignments that wouldn't turn off students to reading or, worse, cause some of them to stop coming to camp.

For example, the teachers had students write down instructions for making cupcakes. The students then set out to make the treats in class.

On Friday, the last day of camp, Inverness Primary teacher Robin Coolbeth asked students about their plans for the rest of the summer.

They had just finished watching Stone Fox, a movie based on a book they read about a boy who tries to save his ailing grandfather's farmhouse by entering a dogsled race.

The students offered an array of responses.

"I'm going to be reading my dictionary at the beach," one student said.

Another said he would go on a family vacation. He promised to look for a library on the cruise ship.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.