By LORRI J. HELFAND
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000
LARGO -- Michael Fioretti, 13, tunes in to the percussive beat as performance artists from the theater hit Stomp dance across the computer screen. After a descriptive passage fills the screen, he confidently recites it into the computer's built-in microphone. When he's through, a tiny character pops up and says, "You did a terrific job."
Michael and his peers in Deborah Agrafojo's class are the first at Largo Middle School to try out Read 180, a program that uses special software combined with independent reading and one-on-one attention to boost reading skills. Last year, in a pilot program, 19 Pinellas County schools gave Read 180 a spin. This year, 21 more joined in.
Most of the kids in Michael's seventh-grade class think the interactive computer program is a blast.
"It feels like a game and learning at the same time," Charlene Abelseth, 13, said.
Agrafojo and Sheila Devlin, another Read 180 teacher, also give the computer program high marks. Through a master computer called the Scholastic Managing Suite, teachers get instant reports on their students' progress in reading, pronunciation, comprehension and spelling.
"That's the beauty of it because you can monitor them," Devlin said.
Corey Hadley, 12, said he likes the feedback, too. "The CDs help you. If you're not mastering it, they make you do it over," he said.
But Read 180 is not just about computers. There are several elements that make it effective, educators say.
In each class, Agrafojo concentrates on a different concept and weaves it into her daily lesson plan. Today, students worked on identifying "physical inferences," which are descriptive phrases.
Students start the day with journal writing. Then Agrafojo reads a bit of a Harry Potter book before dividing her class into three groups. One works on the computers. Another heads to the independent-reading nook to learn about earthquakes, pirates, music and fashion. And the third group gathers around a table with Agrafojo, scanning passages of The Giver for physical inferences.
Agrafojo said the small size of the class, 15 students, helps her to teach the kids more effectively. "I know I can go slower and give them the one-on-one time that they need," she said.
Corey said he liked the small class too. "In a regular class, you get less attention. In this class, it's easier to learn stuff," he said.
For Mayra Castro, individual instruction has been even more crucial. She came here nine years ago from Mexico, and when she started school, neither she nor her parents spoke English. Mayra had difficulty understanding her assignments and teachers "were not much help," she said.
Now, she said, Agrafojo takes the extra time to read with her and help her with pronunciation.
Jayla Crayton, 12, said she sometimes felt embarrassed when she couldn't keep up in her other classes, but she feels more comfortable here.
"I think it's good because people here have the same problems that I do," she said.
Read 180 was originally developed at Vanderbilt University to help students that were reading below grade level. The project chose its name because it hoped to turn students' reading skills around 180 degrees.
Jan Mickler, a district supervisor of secondary education, said the program had a variety of software bugs the first year, but she said those problems have been ironed out.
Largo High Principal Bill Cooper said other educators had sung the praises of the program and that he's happy with the results at his school so far. "Virtually everybody I spoke to said it was a good program and that it was working," he said.
Students in Agrafojo's class seem confident that it's working for them, too.
"I'm getting good at reading," Jayla said.
Mayra said Read 180 is working for her, too. "It's helping because I can read Harry Potter now," she said.
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