By ROGER MOONEY
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –During the weeks leading up to the start of fifth grade, when Cee J Knause was home doing not much of anything, she found herself singing the Short Vowel Song.
“A … a … a …a … apple
E … e … e … e … egg.”
Or the Long Vowel Song.
“I got an a for apron
An e for eagle.”
Sometimes, Cee J sang “The Ballad of the Silent E.”
“She sings those songs all day,” her mom, Kellie Mendheim said. “Sometimes she lets me sing them.”
Cee J is a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg. Like nearly all of her 90 schoolmates, she attends the K-5 private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.
Cee J learned those songs last spring when she participated in the Winning Reading Boost program for second-graders and above who struggled to read.
They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.
Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher and Safety Harbor, Florida, resident, wrote them years ago. The songs were the foundation of Dickson’s Sing, Spell, Read and Write, a widely successful phonics-based program published in 1972 that taught children to read. A decade later, when Dickson saw the need to reach older non-readers, she wrote Winning, a 90-hour intervention program with age appropriate stories and songs that had tremendous success in jails and teen detention centers.
“If you can sing it, you can learn it,” Dickson said.
Mount Zion was used as a pilot program last spring with 10 students participating. Cee J, then in fourth grade, was one of those students.
“The program went very well,” Mount Zion principal Franca Sheehy said. “We saw results.”
Students who misread more than five fluency words out of 60 on a K-1 phonics test were included in the program. Combined, the 10 students averaged nearly 27 missed words. Only one, a third-grader, missed fewer than 10, and that student missed nine.
“I love it,” said Cee J, who missed 29 of the 60 words. “When I didn’t do Winning Reading Boost, I used to struggle at reading. As soon as I started this, it started helping me, and I love how the songs made it fun.”
Cee J’s struggles stemmed from reading too fast, causing her to miss words. Winning Reading taught her to read at a slower pace, which increased her fluency learning.
Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said Cee J showed the most improvement of the 10 students.
“Everyone showed some growth,” Bogle-Duke said. “It was significant in others and a little less in one or two.”
Students gained confidence in their ability to read. Using phonics, they learned to decode words, rather than guess at them. Those who entered as choppy readers learned to read at a smoother pace.
Sheehy was so impressed with Winning Reading Boost that it was added to the 2019-20 budget. It will be used throughout the school year after they identify which students need the intervention program.
Why Johnny can’t read
An October 2018 story in the New York Times referenced a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only four of 10 fourth graders were competent readers. A big reason, the story stated, is students are not taught to read phonically, meaning they do not learn to decode words.
This is not a new development. Dickson began teaching first grade in the 1950s in Arlington, Virginia, when it was forbidden to teach phonics, learning by decoding the relationship between sounds and spelling.
“The schools of education ridiculed the teaching of phonics,” she said. “It was just awful.”
Because she was fresh out of college and just beginning her career, Dickson complied with the school district’s stance during her first two years as a teacher. Yet, she knew she failed those students who didn’t pass reading.
In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And what you can do about it.” The book advocated phonics over the standard reading by sight, often referred to as “Look-say.”
Reading the book reinforced Dickson’s belief that the school district’s stance was wrong. Not only could she see that from the reading scores of her students, but also with her younger brother, David, who struggled with reading. Dickson saw first-hand the impact that had on David’s education.
“I was tuned-in to the problems that come along when a kid can’t read. He was ruined,” Dickson said. “I was looking for a way to fix it, and I found what was wrong.”
She began teaching phonics to her students, and their reading scores improved. Eventually, Dickson was asked to teach reading her way during summer school.
She realized some students struggled because they were tripped up by what she called, “hidden bloopers,” like the difference in the graphic forms of the letters “a” and “g” in written text, and addressed them in her programs.
Throughout the 1960s, Dickson combined her love of music with her love of teaching, sat at her piano and composed the songs for Sing, Spell, Read and Write.
The program went nationwide in the 1970s, and school districts reported improved reading scores by students who participated.
“It’s earth-shaking,” Dickson said of the program’s success.
‘It’s the music’
In 2015, The Tampa Bay Times ran a series on how the Pinellas County School Board in Tampa Bay turned five once average public schools in low-income areas into what it termed, “Failure Factories.”
Searching for help, a grass roots St. Petersburg community reached out to Don Pemberton at University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an innovative hub that brings together the latest developments in academic research and practice to improve education. Lisa Langley, Lastinger’s chief of staff, along with the UF team, Sue Dickson and her daughter Dianne Dickson-Fix (a retired elementary school teacher in Pinellas County) updated Winning and created Winning Reading Boost for students in grades 2 and up.
The new program involves 36 sequenced steps to independent reading through songs and games and four books.
“Anything we want the kids to memorize is in the songs, because the songs provide the repetition to make the learning fast and easy,” Dickson-Fix said.
The lessons are put to music – rock, rap, country and calypso.
“It’s a hands-on approach and it gets them excited to do the stories,” said Bogle-Duke, the Mount Zion teacher. “The stories are not very long, so they get through each part. They’re using the skills and they are reminded about what they just learned to use as a tool for what they’re reading.”
To prevent students from stumbling over words they don’t know, there is not one word in the story that hasn’t already been covered.
“Sue thought it out,” Langley said. “It’s like a shaky foundation for a house. She had to knock that house down and rebuild that foundation.”
Why does it work?
“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.
Sheehy agreed. She said her students don’t have a problem learning Bible verses and pledges when they sing them.
“They are able to memorize this information, and music helps them memorize the sounds,” Sheehy said. “You hear them singing that song later. Eventually, the more they sing it, they start putting the dots together and realize what they are singing. The lightbulb goes on.”
Mendheim, Cee J’s mom, said she was glad when her daughter was asked last spring to join the program.
“I was teaching Cee J to read, but I wanted someone to take it a step forward,” she said. “She was reading, but not how I wanted her to read.”
When told she was in the program, Cee J said her response was, “OK, I’m struggling. I need to practice.”
Cee J continued to read her Winning Reading Boost books over the summer. She even erased her answers so she could take the quizzes over.
Cee J’s reward for improving? A bookshelf in her bedroom and books to put on the shelf.
“It’s really important to read,” Cee J said, “because when you grow up, you have to pay bills and stuff, and you have to know what it says that you have to pay.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.
“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”
But the name is all that’s changed.
“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.
Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.
With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.
“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “
The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.
“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”
Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Sept. 27, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
Meanwhile, scholarship students are 8 percent more likely to obtain associate degrees. That number rises to 29 percent for those who secured scholarships in earlier grades and used them at least four years.
Annual evaluations of standardized test results in the scholarship program have consistently found the average student who uses the program to attend a private school makes roughly one year’s academic progress in one year’s time.
They’ve also found students who use the scholarships tend to be more disadvantaged than other lower-income students who don’t use them.
Urban Institute authors Matthew M. Chingos and Daniel Kuehn describe scholarship students this way: “They have low family incomes, they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.”
Studies have looked at long-term outcomes for other programs that help disadvantaged students pay private school tuition.
But researchers haven’t looked as much at college enrollment among students who received scholarships from big, statewide programs. The Urban Institute report is unprecedented in its scale. It looks at more than 10,000 students across the nation’s third-largest state. It uses data from the Florida Department of Education, as well as Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the scholarships.
Unpacking the findings
The study finds students who use tax credit scholarships are significantly more likely than peers with similar disadvantages to enroll in college within two years of finishing high school.
Students who continued using a scholarship for four years or more saw, by far, the largest college-enrollment boost. Those who only used a scholarship for one year saw essentially no benefit.
The researchers note one potential factor. Students who leave the scholarship program after a short time tend to struggle more academically. Those who remain on scholarships for several years tend to perform better, perhaps because they’ve found schools that work for them.
Most of the enrollment boost for scholarship alumni happened at Florida’s community colleges. The state’s 28 community colleges are intended to be accessible and affordable. Tuition and fees for full-time Florida College System students working toward associate degrees cost roughly half what students pay at the state’s four-year public universities. The researchers noted the two-year schools are “more financially accessible to the low-income students participating in FTC.”
The researchers didn’t look at private or out-of-state institutions, where data wasn’t as readily available. As a result, they cautioned that: “National data indicate that low-income students from private high schools are more likely to enroll in private and out-of-state colleges than low-income students from public high schools. Because of this, our results may understate the true impact of FTC participation on college enrollment and degree attainment.”
The enrollment boost was larger for a few notable groups. Scholarships students born outside the U.S. and those who spoke a language other than English at home saw some of the largest jumps in college enrollment.
Scholarship students weren’t just more likely to attend two-year colleges. They were also 8 percent more likely to earn associate degrees. But the researchers note there was some drop-off between the jump in college attendance and the jump in completion.
Also, scholarship students were not significantly more likely to earn four-year degrees. The researchers note their sample sizes were small for this group, so it was hard to make statistical comparisons. They also noted that only 4 percent of the disadvantaged public-school students they compared to scholarship recipients earn bachelor’s degrees.
What the findings mean
Low-income students from high-poverty schools face greater barriers getting to college than their middle-income peers. To earn a four-year degree, the barriers are larger still. They’re more likely to struggle with tuition payments, student loans and jobs that take time away from their studies.
These barriers deserve a closer look, the Urban Institute researchers write.
This study finds that the nation’s largest private school choice program helps students into college, but too many still fail to earn degrees. A fuller understanding of what this means for these students will require continuing to track their outcomes, including bachelor’s degree attainment rates and incomes. But this study shows that policymakers considering the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs should carefully consider not just their likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how they might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation.
Other programs dedicated to expanding educational opportunity for lower-income students have seen similar results. In 2011, the Knowledge Is Power Program learned roughly 33 percent of students who completed middle school with the nation’s largest charter school network managed to graduate college.
Those results didn’t satisfy KIPP. So the charter organization created a new program to help its alumni not only reach college, but finish it.
Still, for school choice programs facing a flurry of headlines, the Urban Institute report suggests the anecdotes about school choice scholarship recipients awakening to the possibility of college aren’t mere anomalies.
Travis Pillow can be reached at Tpillow@sufs.org.
Volunteer Florida, the Governor’s Commission on Community Service, recently awarded Step Up For Students an AmeriCorps Grant to assist low-income students in south Pinellas County with supplemental education services to boost their academic achievement.
Step Up’s AmeriCorps Achieve program will launch in October and provide 20 AmeriCorps volunteers to work as teachers’ aides in seven St. Petersburg schools serving some of the poorest children in the city.
Members will each earn a stipend of $12,530 annually, as well as tuition assistance for college, among other benefits, support the classroom teacher with increasing literacy and math achievement, said Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, which oversees the program.
The AmeriCorps volunteers also will help track students’ academic progress on special software, part of a program created by Step Up For Students called the Teaching and Learning Exchange (TLE). The software allows teachers to produce learning goals, monitor student success and exchange information with parents or guardians.
“We are really giving them that gift of time, that resource of time,” she said. “That resource of time is just as valuable a resource as software.”
Additionally, volunteers will operate an afterschool program to enhance learning and help raise awareness about community and education partnerships. At the end of the year, the AmeriCorps members will be responsible for improving the academic achievement of 80 percent of all students participating in the Achieve program.
“The ultimate goal of the AmeriCorps Achieve program is to raise student achievement in reading and math,” said Judi Duff, who will manage the volunteers. “According to a recent investigation in the Tampa Bay Times, most of the public elementary school students in south St. Petersburg are failing in reading and math. The tax credit scholarships given by Step Up For Students are giving families in this area a choice for a better education. AmeriCorps’ Achieve program will provide manpower and resources to help combat this problem.”
Duff used to work in Title 1 public schools in Hillsborough County and, later, as a media specialist for Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace.
“I look forward to getting into each of these schools and finding ways for the AmeriCorps Achieve program to help raise student achievement. Each of these schools is unique with its own set of challenges,” said Duff. “My job will be to provide them with the right AmeriCorps member who will be the best fit for their students and program.”
Glen Gilzean, Step Up’s vice president of Family and Community Affairs, authored the grant proposal to help create the AmeriCorps Achieve program after collaborating with Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Sykes is a strong supporter of Step Up For Students and the tax credit scholarship program.
“My goal is to ensure low-income students have access to additional educational services to succeed academically,” said Gilzean.
The schools mostly are in south St. Petersburg: Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy, Elim Junior Academy, Mt. Zion Christian Academy, Bethel Community Christian School, Academy Prep of St. Petersburg and Cathedral School of St. Jude. More than 570 Step Up income-based scholars attend these schools.
Many of the schools are already part of Step Up’s Success Partners program.
Since AmeriCorps’ founding 21 years ago, more than 900,000 members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours volunteering across American working with nonprofits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based groups.