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Florida Expands Extra-Hour Reading Initiative for Low-Performing Schools

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Florida is expanding a measure that requires a longer academic day in the state's lowest performing public elementary schools. The mandate, which until now roped in 100 elementary schools based on state reading tests, will now reach 300 schools. 

The Sunshine State first established the requirement under legislation approved in 2012. As originally designed, the 100 public elementary schools with the lowest reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, had to extend their day by an hour and use that time for reading instruction. But this year's state budget, signed on June 2 by Gov. Rick Scott, expands the requirement to reach the 300 lowest-performing schools, effective next fall.

State lawmakers were apparently keen to expand the program because the extra hour seems to have helped students become better readers. As Education Week reported earlier this year, 73 schools saw reading scores go up after just one year with the extra hour. Seventy schools moved off the lowest 100 list altogether.

"Done right, the benefits of this program are extensive and in some cases dramatic," the law's author, Republican state Sen. David Simmons, told Education Week.

Thirty schools that got off the lowest-100 list decided the extra hour was valuable enough to keep it the following year.

A report by the legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found the extra hour worked best in schools in which the entire staff supported the idea and the principal was enthusiastic about more time, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

In an Education Week webinar about Florida's extra-hour initiative, Debbie Battles, the elementary curriculum director for the Palm Beach County school district, said putting a positive spin on the requirement helped 15 out of 16 schools in her district move off the lowest-performing list.

"Being identified as a Low 100—that is not a designation that any school principal wants," Battles said. Yet, she noted, principals "shared with their faculties and communities that the extra hour shouldn't be viewed as a punishment, (but) rather an opportunity that would really benefit every student as well as the teachers," who all received additional training in teaching reading.

The state does not provide districts with extra money to add the hour, which can be a strain on district finances, Escambia County Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas told the Pensacola News Journal. He said it costs an average of $400,000 per school to extend the day. Still, he said, the extra hour is helpful.

"I think it's going to be a hardship for the district, but it's good for students," Thomas said. "That's the bottom line. If you're in that 10 percent of the kids that got to the point where you could read on grade level and you weren't before, and you were able to do that because of the extra effort and energy, how much is that worth? For the rest of that child's life, that's worth a lot."

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