Reading program falling short

Because it was not optimally implemented in many classrooms, a multimillion dollar program has not reached its potential in Pinellas.A multimillion-dollar program adopted by Pinellas schools in 1999 has not been properly carried out in scores of classrooms, an analysis shows.

Published August 27, 2006

Years ahead of other school systems in the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas educators seized on a new reading program that had shown eye-catching results in Orlando.

Kids who had never been read to at home - who tripped over words and got discouraged and fell behind in classes - saw their reading scores improve by as much as 33 percent in one school year. They also began to behave better.

The program, piloted in the 1990s by Orange County schools, caught the attention of Scholastic Inc., the world's largest publisher of children's books. Officials there developed a ready-to-use package for school districts that wanted the same results.

They called it "Read 180" and Pinellas school officials jumped in with both feet, further solidifying their reputation for moving early on innovations. But seven years of good karma came to an end last week when administrators revealed that the multimillion-dollar program had not been properly carried out in scores of Pinellas classrooms.

The problems came to light as part of a new program by superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the School Board to evaluate dozens of components within the school system. Wilcox and his staff have moved quickly to correct the problems.

But the story of how the district arrived at this moment, though still sketchy, is a discomfiting tale of how a well-meaning bureaucracy can fail.

Read 180 started in 1999 at 19 Pinellas schools. While the program may have placed the district on the cutting edge, it also was a tool for uncertain times.

After years of narrowing, the achievement gap between black and white students began to widen again in the 1990s. National test scores showed that many kids had stopped progressing in reading. And by 1999, politicians in Tallahassee were gearing up a school accountability program that would turn Florida education on its ear.

By last year, Read 180 had expanded to 75 Pinellas schools at an annual cost of several million dollars.

School Board member Jane Gallucci remembers visiting Read 180 teachers with tears in their eyes as they told of children rescued from illiteracy.

But just as frequent were the calls from other Read 180 teachers. "This is a great program - when it works," they told her.

Last week, administrators told the board that the district's first-ever evaluation of Read 180 had uncovered troubling news.

Only a handful of Read 180 classrooms in Pinellas were conducting the curriculum the way it was designed to work. Nearly half failed to meet the district's minimum requirements for a Read 180 class, which includes a node of five to seven computers, an area for quiet reading and a table for small-group discussion with the teacher.

Software problems had been rampant, often lingering for weeks and months without repair. Guidance counselors were assigning students to Read 180 who didn't belong there. Some teachers were improvising with materials that weren't part of the highly structured program.

The harm was two-fold.

The district had failed to make the most of millions of dollars spent on salaries for Read 180 teachers, computers, supplies and payments to Scholastic for classroom materials, software and training.

But in a school system that is having to explain a 67 percent graduation rate, some fear Pinellas may also have squandered the opportunity to better serve scores of kids.

"When implemented well, it sings," said Largo Middle School principal Fred Ulrich, who instituted one of the county's first Read 180 programs at Osceola Middle.

Wilcox said students still are likely to benefit from even a sub-par Read 180 class. But the gains might be far greater in a fully implemented one.

A Scholastic study of U.S. Depart of Defense schools in 1999-2000 compared test results from faithfully implemented or "on model" Read 180 classrooms to those in "off model" classrooms.

Students in the "off model" classes made gains in reading, but those in "on model" classes did five times better.

"The data show the kids are learning," Gallucci said. "But were they progressing at the rate they could have progressed at if they used the total (Read 180) model? We'll never know."

Gallucci remembers the board pressing Wilcox's predecessor, Howard Hinesley, and his staff for more data to justify the district's investment in Read 180. She also recalls a thin budget year when Hinesley reduced the budget to train Read 180 teachers.

Veteran board members Linda Lerner, Nancy Bostock and Carol Cook remember a somewhat frustrating give-and-take, pressing administrators for more information about Read 180, perhaps an evaluation, but never quite getting what they wanted.

Their doubts, they said, were fueled by frequent teacher complaints about glitches and nagging thoughts about the large amounts of money being spent on a relatively small number of students.

Roughly 3,000 of the district's 110,000 students are in Read 180 programs. Each class contains 15 to 17 students who move from teacher-guided reading to interactive computers to private reading over 90 minutes. The hope is one of those activities will engage struggling students.

Lerner recalls being told that a complete evaluation would have to wait until numerous technical problems were ironed out.

Some board members recall pressing harder at times, but never coming to a point where a committed majority was pushing hard at the same time.

Often, they said, their attention turned to other issues.

"There was never a concerted effort to say let's look at Read 180 and let's go for it," said Cook, now the board's chairwoman. "It just kept slipping through the cracks or getting caught up in other stuff."

At a workshop in April 2003, according to district records, Hinesley and his staff gave the board a detailed presentation on the district's reading programs, including Read 180. A PowerPoint presentation that day included several slides showing surveys on what teachers and parents thought of Read 180.

There also were two slides that showed growth in reading scores for elementary students, but nothing about middle and high school students.

The report included a detailed matrix that showed an "evaluation plan" for Read 180. But it does not appear to call for anything like the comprehensive evaluation that Wilcox would later order in the spring of this year.

Wilcox said the early cut in Read 180 training money along with a decision not to refresh classroom materials probably were major factors.

"I think the wheels started to come off from a district perspective fairly early," he said. "People weren't looking after the long-term investment they had made."

Meanwhile, other area districts that came later to the Read 180 party report being happy with the program.

Tom Curry, who oversees curriculum for Citrus County schools, said results were modest at first. Then, as teachers got more training, reading scores improved noticeably. Citrus uses Read 180 in all of its middle and high schools.

The program is growing in its second year in Pasco County and has been growing for the past three years in Hillsborough County, where assistant superintendent Mike Grego described an exhaustive process for ensuring the Read 180 model is followed faithfully in classrooms.

"We were methodical about how we rolled this out," he said. "You need to plan and not let anything go untalked-about or unperformed, or that's the component that will nip you."

The problems brought to light last week are not unusual in U.S. school districts, many of which are still coming to grips with increased accountability, Wilcox said.

As they do, he said, they are becoming more sophisticated about evaluating their operations.

In the end, an optimist could argue, the Pinellas system did its job, even if it took seven years.

"I think it's a good thing to have it happen now," Lerner said of the evaluation. "Do I wish it had happened sooner? Yes."

Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Eddy Ramirez and Mary Spicuzza contributed to this report.