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Reading program: a $9.5-million failure?

Pinellas schools have spent millions to help struggling students, but it’s hard to know if it works.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2006

LARGO — Pinellas taxpayers have spent millions of dollars since 1999 on a highly touted program for struggling readers, but the school district and a top education company have managed it so poorly that no one knows whether it’s working.

The “Read 180” program, which cost the district $9.5-million last year, has been plagued by frequent computer glitches, a chronic inability to fix them in a timely way, poor training and educators who failed to see that the program’s highly prescriptive lessons were carried out the way they should be.

“Inexcusable’’ was the word chosen by Mary Brown, one of several School Board members who said Tuesday they had sounded alarms about the program for years as teachers complained.

“It just makes the hair on my skin stand up,’’ said board member Jane Gallucci.

“I’ve been in classes where they haven’t had the software for six months,’’ said Linda Lerner, who has been on the board since 1992. “Since the beginning of the implementation there have been ongoing difficulties.’’

The problems occurred even as Read 180 steadily grew in Pinellas, from 19 schools in 1999 to 75 schools this year. Developed and sold by New York-based Scholastic Inc., Read 180 today is offered to about 3,000 Pinellas students.

The program costs more than $3,000 a year per student, primarily for teacher salaries.

It also is used in Hillsborough, Pasco and Citrus counties as well as in hundreds of other districts across Florida and the nation. According to Scholastic, 1 of every 40 adolescent students in the United States has gone through a Read 180 classroom.

The program is designed to accomplish what the name suggests: help struggling students make a 180-degree turn in their reading ability. Pinellas and other districts use it in the effort to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Proponents of Read 180 say it works because the classes have only 15 students, who break into three groups. It engages students in multiple ways with the idea that one of those ways will light a spark in students.

Each day, one of the three student groups convenes around the teacher for reading and discussion about a book. Another gathers around a cluster of five computers to take part in interactive exercises that produce data about each student’s progress. The third group reads in comfortable seating in a quiet part of the room. During the 90-minute class, the groups rotate to each activity.

Teachers say the highly structured classes result in fewer discipline problems.

Pinellas’ problems were detailed in a report discussed Tuesday at a board workshop, which featured an appearance by Margery W. Mayer, president of Scholastic Education.

“We do accept responsibility,’’ said Mayer, who took notes and nodded attentively as a litany of Read 180 woes circulated around the board table. “My heart is sad because I wish we had had this meeting a couple of years ago.”

Mayer vowed Scholastic would do a better job of helping the district with computer problems, and she knocked $11,000 in training charges off the proposed cost of an upgrade of the computer portion of Read 180. She also reduced the amount the company would charge for annual tech support.

“I’m sorry,’’ she told board members. “I apologize.’’

The upgrade is contained in a proposed contract in which the district would pay Scholastic nearly $932,000 in software and “technical services.” It drew skepticism at last week’s School Board meeting, where some board members appeared ready to jettison Read 180 altogether.

Board members agreed to discuss the issue further at the workshop. They also were given a report on Read 180 recently compiled by district administrators.

The report concluded that only a fraction of the 128 Read 180 classrooms in the district were faithfully following the program’s model.

Like the parent who assembles a bike without heeding all the directions, Pinellas had not followed the model correctly. The ride has been wobbly.
Among the problems:
The district’s report on Read 180 is part of a stepped-up effort by Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the board to gauge the effectiveness of many long-time programs.

Despite the problems in Pinellas, Wilcox said he remains confident Read 180 is a good program if implemented properly. He said it has been successful in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, “but they are zealots for (proper) implementation.’’

Of 3,000 students in the Pinellas program, the district found 358 who had been in classrooms where it was faithfully implemented. Of the 358, about 64 percent did better than similar students this year on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The glitches prevented the district from measuring the progress of the remaining students.
Though dismayed by Tuesday’s grim report, board members seemed ready to keep the program for now. They will vote on the upgrade at a later meeting.

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