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Sarasota Wednesday, Jul. 5, 2017 2 years ago

Sarasota Superintendent Todd Bowden outlines plan to get every student reading on grade level

In a letter to readers, Bowden explains how Sarasota County Schools can improve in the coming years, starting with helping students master the foundational skill of reading.

Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Todd Bowden was asked to write a letter about the upcoming school year, which was originally published in the Sarasota Observer's Back to School special section. Here's what he had to say:

In June, I was selected to serve on a jury to decide the fate of a young man found guilty of murder. All that stood between him and the death penalty were the deliberations of 12 jurors. While the implications of that decision weighed heavily on me over the two-week trial, what will impact me personally for the rest of my life is the question of whether any earlier educational intervention could have changed the outcome for the families involved. You see, the defendant, one of his accomplices, and all of the victims are past, present and future students of Sarasota County Schools.

A core belief that I share with the staff at the Sarasota County School District and those on the front lines in our schools is that education is the key to cure all of society’s woes. When you educate a child in a way that is truly customized to their individual needs and skills, you open up the world for that child. Cultural experiences can prevent racism, good teachers can change lives and impactful curriculum can break dysfunctional cycles.  

We are doing this well in Sarasota County, but we can always be better. 

The district currently offers rigorous classes to challenge students at all grade levels to prepare them for success in college and in careers after graduation. But this success is completely dependent on mastery of one foundational skill: reading.

Our goal is nothing less than having every student in the district reading on grade level. Here is how we will get there.

In June, Sarasota and Manatee counties received the prestigious All-America City Award from the National Civic League for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaboration that involves the entire community in this essential effort. 

"They say it takes a village to raise a child. I submit that it takes a village to teach a child." 

Our Reading Recovery Program, another enormous and collaborative community effort, is helping very low-performing first-graders bring their reading skills to grade level. Seventy-five percent of the students who complete that program nationwide reach their goal and require no further remediation. Sarasota outperformed that national average with 86 percent of these students reaching their grade-level average.

The Scientific Research Associates reading instruction approach in two schools, another example of a collaborative community partnership, focuses on rhythm, phonics, group drills and repetition to improve reading skill. 

An Achievement Gap Task Force is busy developing specific approaches to improve the academic performance of African-American and Hispanic students. 

Summer Learning Academies modeled after the very successful Eagle Academy program at Alta Vista Elementary School are being launched and expanded. Tuttle, Emma E. Booker, Gocio and Alta Vista elementary schools have a two-generation component through which parents can break out of the cycle of poverty that so often interferes with their children’s chances for success in school. 

Programs to provide teachers with continuous information about student progress, like iReady in elementary and middle schools and Achieve 3000 in high schools, help identify areas in which students are succeeding or struggling and help teachers design specific approaches to address those needs. 

The district budget for the coming year includes additional staffing to help principals focus on instructional leadership and to address social and behavioral problems that may affect student achievement.

I am humbled and honored to lead one of the finest school districts in America. We are thrilled to have maintained our district grade of an A in Florida, one of only two districts in the state to maintain that top status since grading began in 2004. Our teachers and staff have done a tremendous job. But we cannot rest on our laurels. 

After the conclusion of the trial I referenced earlier, I reflected on the verdict the jury reached, which resulted in life in prison for the young man. I wondered, would the outcome have been different for the former Sarasota County student, his accomplices and the victims in the murder case if they had been shown and chose different paths in education? If they had graduated with a set of skills to launch them into a successful vocational career? If there had been earlier educational intervention?

Of course we will never know the answers, but it’s questions like these that will drive me and forever impact my work moving forward. What we do know is that by supporting programs that work, that are backed by research and proven results, we can get closer to achieving our goals. Our mission is to create a learning environment in which we are positively impacting every student, every day. And while we can’t change the past, we can certainly shape the future.

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