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Reading grades improve, love of books grows with the help of Florida’s Reading Scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Lindsey Pawlishen was so confident she would pass her love of reading to her daughter that she asked for and received children’s books instead of traditional gifts at the baby shower.

She began reading to Samantha when Samantha was an infant expecting to instill that love of reading.

But Samantha didn’t love reading.

“I didn’t understand it,” Lindsey said, “because everybody said if you read to your kids as soon as they are born, they’re going to be readers, but that didn’t work.”

It would turn out that Samantha’s lack of interest had something to do with the fact she struggled to read. She scored low on the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments as a third grader during the 2020-21 school year. That made her eligible for Florida’s Reading Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Samantha’s reading scores have improved and her love of reading has increased with the help of the Reading Scholarship.

The scholarship was created to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. Those who scored a 1 or 2 on the third- or fourth-grade ELA section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible.

The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

Lindsey was told about the scholarship from the principal at Samantha’s school. She applied for the scholarship last summer and was accepted. She used the funds to buy an iPad and downloaded the Epic! app.

Epic! provides digital books and videos for children 12 and under. It suggests books based on what the child is reading and tracks their progress for the parents. It also has educational features.

“It makes it easier for me to read, because if I don’t know what a word is, I can tap on it, and it will sound it out,” said Samantha, 9, a fourth-grader at Imagine School Lakewood Ranch, a charter school in Manatee County.

Samantha is still a grade level below in reading, but she is gaining ground. An A student in her other classes, she has raised her grade this year in literature to a B. Lindsey said she will gladly take that. It’s much better than seeing her daughter feel what she described as “defeated.”

“I was sad for her, because she was getting frustrated, not understanding why she wasn’t picking up reading,” Lindsey said. “I couldn’t figure out how to help her. I felt bad she wasn’t picking up.”

Samantha used to roll her eyes when her mother told her about the adventures she could have by simply reading a book. Now, Samantha goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, having discovered the Harry Potter series. She also loves The Baby-Sitters Club series.

Samantha plays defense on a travel ice hockey team, practicing twice a week at a rink an hour north of the family’s home in Palmetto. It makes Lindsey happy to see her daughter with her nose in a book during the long rides to and from games and practices.

When asked what it was like to read before she received the Reading Scholarship, Samantha said, “It was a little bit hard.”

Now, “it’s finally clicking,” Lindsey said. “That is nice to see, because I was always in a book when I was a kid.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students prepares to roll out new program to assist low-income students in south Pinellas

Lisa A. Davis

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. VF logo

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.

The extra help will give teachers more time to work on lesson plans, prepare for parent conferences and meet parents  – something they rarely have time to do, Thomas said.americorps logo

“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.