EAST COUNTY — As an educator, Jennifer Passmore has always believed in the power of individualized education.
When her daughter, Emily, scored a two on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in ninth grade and was forced to take a remedial reading course that summer, it only furthered her resolve that education should not be so standardized. Emily, now a college graduate, read for fun, even completing four C.S. Lewis novels that summer. She scored four and five on previous FCAT reading assessments.
“She was a wonderful reader; it didn’t make any sense,” says Passmore, a former teacher at Braden River Elementary and reading coach for Manatee County Schools.
Now, Passmore, the director of Woodland Community Church’s Early Childhood Center, will be the hands and feet of a grassroots effort to bring multi-sensory, highly individualized instruction to classrooms in the East County area and throughout the state.
Through a partnership with the Brad Dunn Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting early childhood literacy, especially for children with dyslexia and other learning challenges, the Woodland Early Childhood Center this month will open a private school for children in kindergarten and first grade — the Dunn Preparatory at Woodland Early Childhood Center.
It also will implement the foundation’s Planting Seeds program, which works to establish prekindergarten literacy programs throughout the community at a variety of preschools and learning centers.
Both of Woodland’s new offerings pilot the Dunn Foundation’s educational initiatives in the area.
“Dyslexia comes across all spectrums,” said Jennifer Colombo, executive director of the Brad Dunn Foundation. “The foundation wants to plant seeds throughout the community. We are looking into some other local charter schools and childhood centers.”
Creating a strong foundation of literacy in prekindergarten through first grade is critical because children learn to read at that time. Starting around third grade, they read to learn. If children haven’t become successful readers by that time, they usually have already experienced a sense of failure and may struggle with school for the duration of their education, Colombo said.
The foundation approached Passmore last fall, offering to partner with the voluntary prekindergarten program by funding special teacher training, testing the children and purchasing the Nemours Bright Start teaching labs, a program used at Nemours hospital in Jacksonville. Nemours follows the research-and-evidence-based Orton Gillingham-approach to reading that the foundation promotes; it is language-based, multi-sensory, systematic and both diagnostic and prescriptive.
At the beginning of the year, children were tested on their reading skills. Of 95 children tested, 11% fell in the below-average range — a predicator of poor reading success in kindergarten and first grade. The national average is 10%.
Children were retested at the end of the school year, and all 95 made average to significant learning gains. The 11% tested at average or above-average.
“The kids were off the charts,” Passmore said. “It was a great experience. The Dunns said, ‘It’s been great, but what about kindergarten and first grade?’”
The Dunn Foundation offered Woodland up to $100,000 to start its private school using the Orton-Gillingham method of instruction.
“Because it was so successful, we decided there were other students in the area (that needed it),” Colombo said. “We wanted to have a K/1 classroom that had a mix of learners.”
Passmore said she’s long hoped to start a private school, but has not had funding.
“If we’re going to do it, we want to do it really well,” Passmore said. “At WECC, we believe that learning is a profoundly unique experience and that each child should be given instruction that fits their individual learning style. It just seemed that this was a great fit.
“Common core is education for the masses,” she says. “Their idea is that every child can learn, but education needs to fit the child. We will be using Common Core standards, but in an uncommon way.”
To start, the Dunn Preparatory at Woodland will have one combined kindergarten/first-grade classroom, so children can learn according to their needs, but in an appropriate social setting. Passmore hopes to offer more classrooms and age levels in future years, based on community needs.
Foundation promotes literacy
David and Kim Dunn, owners of Bradenton-based ETCO, a precision metal stamping and molded-products company, started the Brad Dunn Foundation after experiencing how an alternative teaching method helped their son conquer dyslexia. They also uncovered a family history of learning challenges and helped start the Hamilton School at Wheeler in Rhode Island.
Now full-time residents in the area, the Dunns plan to use their foundation to improve early literacy in Sarasota/Bradenton and around the state.
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