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RAISE-ing the bar

By Staff | May 12, 2021

For the partisan-politics weary cynics among us who question whether those we elect can ever work across the aisle for the common good, the answer here in Florida is yes, in at least two instances this legislative session.

And the common good is very good indeed.

Last Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a pair of education bills that passed both the House and the Senate unanimously.

One, HB 7011, creates the RAISE, or Reading Achievement Initiative for Scholastic Excellence Program. It provides new and needed tools to tackle the near stagnant and abysmal proficiency numbers that show far too many children have, in fact, been left behind here in the Sunshine State.

The other, HB 419, focuses on intervention at the earliest levels.

The goal?

To provide children with the support and basic skills they need to begin kindergarten as learners, and to boost the number of children reading at grade level by third grade — a critical literacy turning point — to 90 percent.

Statewide, despite existing Voluntary Pre-K, 58 percent of children did not have the minimal skillset deemed appropriate to begin kindergarten when he took office, Gov. DeSantis said.

According to statewide numbers for 2019, 43 percent of students in grades 3-5 did not meet “satisfactory” achievement standards, scoring at level 2, below satisfactory on the state’s five-level scale, meaning they are “likely to need substantial support for the next grade or course;” or at level 1, inadequate, meaning they are “highly likely to need substantial support for the next grade or course.”

Here in Lee County, the numbers were worse.

Kindergarten readiness was at 41 percent, meaning 59 percent of our youngest students did not have the basic skill set to even begin grade-level work.

Proficiency numbers for children the district was already teaching were not much better, meaning children who start off behind too often remain behind.

Here in Lee, for grades 3-5, 45 percent of students failed to score at level 3 or above; for grades 6-8, only 53 percent achieved minimum standards while the numbers for grades 9-10 showed only 50 percent of students scoring at level 3 or above. Half did not.

By any standard a 50 percent success rate is no success. These bills are aimed directly at helping the kids the current programs, implementation and school-level efforts have failed.

Specifically:

According to a release issued by the Governor’s Office, HB 419 “Prioritizes Florida’s youngest learners and VPK programs by strengthening the accountability system and utilizing coordinated screening and progress monitoring programs to identify emergent literacy and mathematics skill deficiencies to provide those students intensive, personalized interventions.”

The new law to go into effect July 1, “Establishes a timeline for phasing in a new VPK accountability system based on performance metrics that include student outcomes, learning gains, and observations of child-teacher interactions” and looks to “capture data on students who may be performing below grade or developmental level and which may enable the identification of early indicators of dyslexia or other developmental delays.”

Catching specific learning disabilities — we call them challenges — coupled with individualized intervention, is crucial to a student’s ability to learn.

The new law also will allow districts to use its research-based reading allocation to fund intensive interventions for VPK students who are identified with a substantial reading deficiency.

The bill appropriates $3,088,000 in recurring funds from the General Revenue Fund to the state Department of Education to implement the coordinated screening and progress monitoring program for VPK and kindergarten students beginning in Fiscal Year 2022-2023. It also appropriates $677,759 to implement the VPK program assessment and $100,000 to contract for a review of the school readiness payment rates.

HB 7011 requires the establishment of a science-based Voluntary Prekindergarten through grade 8 real-time Progress Monitoring System beginning in the 2022-2023 school year.

“It establishes the Reading Achievement Initiative for Scholastic Excellence (RAISE) Program, a system of statewide literacy supports provided through 20 regional literacy expert support teams,” the House bill analysis states.

It also requires the Department of Education to identify instructional materials that implement evidence-based practices, requires an earned reading endorsement for all teachers in front of students with reading deficiencies and calls for both peer and parental involvement.

Rising high school juniors and seniors will be recruited to serve as tutors for summer literacy programs for kindergarten through third-grade students in high-need schools.

Parents whose children are struggling with reading will be informed on their child’s progress and the effectiveness of interventions provided. Parents also will given information on school choice options and “all possible accommodations for students with special abilities and needs.”

It is projected to have a financial impact, at the state level of just under $22 million for reading program trainings, implementation of the screening and monitoring from VPK through eighth grade, establishing the RAISE program, and staffing. The financial impact on local schools district is listed as unknown but the state is not looking to provide additional revenue.

Gov. DeSantis’ office touted the related bills as “groundbreaking early learning and literacy legislation.”

We agree. The potential for a new, and better system may be found within the bills’ lengthy pages.

How the new Division of Early Learning to be established within the state Department of Education builds the foundation, and how the individual school districts build upon the new real-time monitoring processes and provide the required interventions, though, are key.

Replacing a failed numbers-driven system with a new-numbers-driven system that fails at the level of what is right for the individual student fails.

Again.

The individual student is at the heart of what is being proposed.

And that is a good thing.

School Board of Lee County School Board member Gwyn Gittens ran along a personal parallel for what the state presents as educational groundwork this year. The 2021 goal with which she welcomed in the New Year?

“Ensure that all children reach their highest personal potential.”

HB 7011 and HB 419 are a start to “RAISE-ing” the bar.

May they forge a sound foundation, and provide the proper tools for the work ahead, to provide a better education to our children here in Lee County and across the state.

–Citizen editorial