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Florida Reading Scholarship program helps twins stay on pace and excel in middle school

BY LISA BUIE

TAMPA – Since they were babies, Darnell Taylor’s identical twin daughters, Janae, and Sasha, have loved books.

First, picture books, then chapter books.

Now, the 12-year-olds are finding novels on BookTok, the bookish community on TikTok, where people post videos recommending books, make pithy observations about reading, and share their love of literature. Some selections include “Red, White & Royal Blue,” “Ugly Love,” and “The Invisible Life.”

Taylor couldn’t be more pleased.

“They can travel the world with books,” said the UPS employee, who works from her home in a northern suburb of Tampa. “Their English teacher loves that they love to read.”

Though avid readers who were bringing home great grades on classwork and report cards, one of the Taylor twins — Mom won’t say which one — scored just one point shy passing the state’s standardized English and Language Arts test in elementary school.

The result surprised Taylor, who had seen nothing to indicate either of her girls were not on grade level. She immediately began searching for resources and found the Step Up For Students website, where she learned about and applied for the Reading Scholarship Accounts program.

Identical twins Janae Taylor, left, and Sasha Taylor, who attend Union Park Charter Academy north of Tampa, both have benefited from the family’s participation in the Florida Reading Scholarship Accounts program.

“I went into mommy drive,” said Taylor, who has been heavily involved her children’s education since their pre-kindergarten days. “Teachers have a lot of students, so my goal was to fill the gap.”

Fill it she did, with tutoring programs offered by her daughters’ district school and a Lenovo laptop she bought with Reading Scholarship funds. The twin who was one point off course was able to access Reading Plus, an online literacy program that improves fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary, and provides motivation to read.

The combined efforts helped her raise her scores and allowed her to move up to fourth grade with her twin. An unexpected but welcome benefit was that her twin was able to further boost her reading skills.

Each scholarship is worth $500 per student and is available to public school students in grades 3-5 who score below a Level 3 on the standardized English Language Arts test in the prior school year. Florida law requires a passing grade on the standardized test for promotion to fourth grade.

Research shows that as textbook material gets more complex, students who are still struggling in reading get further behind. A long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who are proficient.

With 1,177 scholarships awarded so far this year, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program has been rising in popularity as families seek to make up learning losses that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. To offer additional assistance, the Florida Legislature last year approved the New Worlds Reading Initiative, a $270 million literacy program that delivers one free book per month to traditional district and charter school students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are reading below grade level.

Today, Janae, and Sasha, who weighed just 3 pounds at birth, are excelling at their STEM charter school. They are on the honor roll and taking honors algebra. Janae hopes to one day work in theater, and Sasha dreams of becoming an astronaut.

As twins, they can be competitive when it comes to schoolwork, Taylor said, but she takes that in stride, because they also help each other. The family’s Reading Scholarship Account has provided an excellent opportunity for them to do just that.

Lisa Buie is a senior writer at reimaginEDonline.org.

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