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Reading program gets another shot

Following revelations that the touted remedial program was sloppily run, the School Board votes to upgrade it.

Published September 13, 2006

LARGO - Stung last month by revelations that an expensive reading initiative has been poorly managed for years, Pinellas school officials said Tuesday they are getting the program on the right track.

With that assurance by school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, the School Board voted unanimously to spend more money on the program, known as Read 180.

Pinellas offers the program to about 3,000 struggling readers in fourth grade through high school. The district bought Read 180 in 1999 for 19 schools and has since expanded it to 75 schools.

Last year, the district spent more than $9.5-million to operate it.

The cost of the upgrade comes to $876,945, which reflects a $55,000 markdown from Scholastic Inc., the worldwide publisher that sells Read 180 to school districts across the United States.

Scholastic came down on the price at a recent meeting after a mini revolt by School Board members, who said they were tired of being asked to approve large annual expenditures for Read 180 while never getting a comprehensive report on whether it worked.

The board's questions led to a workshop, where administrators revealed that Read 180's implementation had been ragged overall.

Though the program relied on students using computers in class each day, computer breakdowns were chronic and took weeks to repair. Some teachers were using reading materials that weren't part of the program. Guidance counselors were placing students in Read 180 who didn't belong there.

Only a handful of Read 180 classrooms in Pinellas were using the curriculum the way it was designed to work, reflecting a problem with training and oversight.

The findings were contained in a report ordered early this year by Wilcox, part of an effort to re-evaluate many of the district's long-running programs.

Both the district and Scholastic have assumed blame for the problems and have vowed to fix them.

Wilcox on Tuesday called the episode a "wakeup call" that would be good for the district and its students.

Margery W. Mayer, the New York-based president of Scholastic Education, told board members the experience had been good for her company as well.

"We care very much about what happens here," she said. "We will leave no stone unturned in supporting you."

The world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, Scholastic reported $2.3-billion in revenues in fiscal 2006, which ended May 31. It is the same company that publishes the wildly successful Harry Potter series. And its prompt response to the Pinellas situation reflected its heavy investment in Read 180.

In the slick brochure touting the successes of Read 180 and a new Read 180 upgrade called the Enterprise Edition, the company highlights Pinellas as one of the school districts where the program "has been successfully implemented."

Wilcox said the bad news coming out of Pinellas has not been good for the company. "This has become a priority for Scholastic on a national level," he told the board.

Scholastic markets Read 180 as "America's Premier Reading Intervention program" and says there are Read 180 programs in more than 7,000 American classrooms.

Each day, Read 180 students spend 20 minutes at the beginning of class in group instruction with their teacher. Over the next 60 minutes, they rotate through three stations: a cluster of computers with interactive computer exercises, a reading area with comfortable chairs for solitary reading, and small-group discussions with the teacher. At the end of the 90-minute class is a 10-minute wrapup session.

One additional problem in Pinellas was that some Read 180 classes were scheduled in time slots that did not allow for the full 90 minutes.

Wilcox and his top administrators said a number of steps are being taken to shore up Read 180. Teachers are being trained in the new Enterprise Edition. Also, the district will be working with technology specialists at schools to reduce technical glitches. Guidance counselors will be briefed to correct the problem of students being improperly assigned to Read 180, and the district will make clear to school administrators the importance of faithfully implementing Read 180.

As part of the upgrade, Read 180 classes will get new materials and new software to allow teachers and district officials to more easily keep track of student progress.

Scholastic's brochures contain numerous bar charts showing reading gains among Read 180 students across the country. But Pinellas will try to generate its own data as part of an ongoing review.

In its recent evaluation, the district found 358 students who had been in classrooms where Read 180 was faithfully implemented. About 64 percent did better than similar students this year on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Wilcox plans to give the School Board a followup report on Read 180 in about six months.

[Last modified September 13, 2006, 05:46:22]

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