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27% of local third graders reading at satisfactory level

The State of Florida recently released the data collected from the statewide 3rd grade reading exams – with troublesome results for school districts across the state.

The exams are assessed on five levels: Level 1 being inadequate (with students being highly likely to need substantial support in the next grade), and Level 5, at the top, being mastery (with students being highly likely  to excel in the next grade).

The data released shows the percentage of students who place on the Level 3 (satisfactory) or above range.

This year, the state’s overall percentage of students who placed at Level 3 or above fell at 53% – the smallest percentage since 2015.

The breakdown of counties shows further data – with Gadsden County placing at 27% of 3rd grade students reading at Level 3 or above.

This is down four points from the 2021 data, where 31% of the county’s students were reading at Level 3 or above.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Gadsden County Superintendent of Schools Elijah Key, of the recently-released data. “We’ve got a lot of issues to deal with, and it shows that there will be a lot of growth that we have to tackle in the years to come.”

According to Key, the decrease in the reading level of third grade students in Gadsden County and across the state has direct correlation to the year students spent learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key stated that 2022’s third graders lost a ‘vital year’ in first grade – when the basics of reading are laid as a foundation for later development – due to the pandemic.

“Everybody, across the state, dealt with that issue,” said Key. “We know that kids learn better face-to-face, especially in our community.”

Key says there are other factors at play in the low grade on the reading assessments, though – primarily, teachers and parents.

While Gadsden County has always been in the 30-40% range on the assessments, the dip into the upper-20 percentages does show a new decline.

“Not having very many solid teachers has influenced that,” says Key. “We’ve often put our better teachers in grades 3, 4, and 5. But by that time, our kids have already lost [learning] in a lot of things.”

In the last couple of years, Gadsden County has battled teacher shortages like other school districts across the state and country – that shortage is expounded by other, larger districts offering incentives to get teachers to leave Gadsden County.

“We’ve had ongoing teacher shortages in Gadsden County in years past. It’s been very difficult to get high-quality teachers into Gadsden County,” said Key.

Key adds that it is teachers – more so than principals and administrators – who make a difference in the educational gains of a county.

“You can get a good administrator,  but it is the teachers who are face-to-face with the kids everyday,” Key adds. “Not having those great teachers with our kids every day has been one of the major problems in Gadsden.”

Key notes that while Gadsden County has been able to offer pay raises and better salaries to teachers, aimed at changing the dynamic of competition that Gadsden has with neighboring Leon County (which has historically been able to offer higher wages to teachers), the battle is ‘not yet won’.

“We have not won that battle,” said Key. “Getting our educators to stay in Gadsden County – or getting back our teachers [who have left] will make a difference.”

The other factor at play in the low reading scores, Key notes though, takes place at home.

“What’s going on in the home, and how can we negate what has happened in the home once the kids get to us?” said Key, saying that parents need to get involved in their child’s education.

Key also expressed a need for students to have experienced at-home conversations on academic vocabulary with their parents.

According to Key, ‘academic vocabulary’ are conversations that focus on an understanding of proper English language, paired with parent-child discussions that focus on education, development, and understanding of learning materials.

“Our kids don’t come prepared [with academic vocabulary],” said Key. “These are not the conversations they are having day-to-day at home. We’ve got to change those dynamics.”

Key, who is also a parent with children in Gadsden County schools, says he has to prioritize holding academic-themed conversations at home in order to inspire that “academic vocabulary” within his own family.

It means correcting his children when they are using incorrect vocabulary, holding conversations that foster an interest in education, and encouraging his children to correct him when his own vocabulary slips up.

“It helps [my kids] when they go to take tests,” said Key.

But Key does acknowledge that not all parents may be equipped to hold those conversations.

“The drop-out rate in the past [for Gadsden County] has been high,” said Key.

Due to years of high school students not making it to graduation, some of those prior students are now parents with their own children in the school system – and Key says the district needs to reach out to those parents and better equip them.

Key says he would be open to seeing more educational opportunities for parents, and to help parents foster a spirit of learning at home.

In the past (while a principal of a school), Key says he has hosted educational parent’s nights, which were well-received by parents.

The nights allowed parents to look through the materials that their children would be learning in the upcoming weeks, and the school’s educators would be ready to help equip parents to guide their children through those materials at home.

“It works. It helps them go back home and they can talk to their kids about what they are learning. It gives them ways to help their child,” said Key. “Sometimes parents don’t help their child because they can’t help their child.”

With Gadsden County’s 2021-2022 3rd grade reading score, Key says the data looks as though roughly 73% of the county’s students are not ready for grade 4.

But a low score is not a final toll on a student’s education.

While students who make a low score may be more at-risk for dropping out in the long run, Key says the district is putting together long term plans to make sure that no 3rd grader drops behind.

“We are making sure that we do interventions with those kids to make sure that doesn’t happen,” says Key.

Those interventions look like reading camps, seeking out teachers, and educating parents.

This assessment, Key says, will not be a ‘drop-out prescription’ for Gadsden County’s kids.

Key says the district is aware of what their departing 3rd grade class needs to succeed – and Key brings up the Class of 2022 as an example.

This year, the district had a large graduation class – a vast improvement compared to previous years’ graduating classes.

“We didn’t start the year out with high school students who were graduation ready,” said Key. “But we ended the year with 86% of the students being graduation ready. That takes hard work and dedication from everyone – students and educators.”

By the time the students get to middle school, Key says the district wants students to be ready to leave elementary school, even if they tested low on the reading score.

“We will never count any kids out. We are here to change the tides,” said Key. “This shows how much more room we have to grow, and what direction we need to take when it comes to early learning and building a solid foundation for our early learners.”

So, what is the plan going forward?

Key says it is teachers.

“I’ve reached out to people who live in our county and who are great educators, but currently work in Leon County,” said Key.

Key is taking an active role in staffing the schools for the 2022-2023 school year, rather than waiting for job-seekers to apply.

“We could sit here and wait for someone to apply for positions – but we don’t have the time for that, so we are actively recruiting.”

Aside from that…. “We are going to have to do the best job we can with the people who have.”

Across the country, the number of new teachers coming up through the ranks has been in decline, making well-prepared teachers much sought after in all school districts – but especially small ones like Gadsden County.

Key says he’s already holding conversations with his principals, stressing the need for teachers to be supported and for the district to make sure its current teachers receive ongoing support, training, and education in order to become better equipped to handle Gadsden County’s educational needs.

“We have to do what a coach would do. A coach is given the players that he has, and he has to make it work. He has to train them, build them up, help them perform for the game ahead in the way you want them to perform,” said Key. “We have to do that for our teachers.We have to give them that professional development so they can be a great teacher in front of our kids every single day.”

On the opposite hand, Key says local parents can also help influence the upcoming school year by taking a proactive approach to their child’s education – primarily by making changes at home.

“Make sure your kids are doing something every day to expand their minds,” said Key.

This may mean making sure children are reading books at home, putting away electronic phones and gaming devices, and keeping strict bedtime routines – especially during the school year.

“Make sure your kids are prepared for school each morning. That’s not just about giving them materials, pencils, and paper – make sure these kids are mentally prepared to come to school. If they are missing pencils and paper? We can take care of that,” said Key. “We can’t take care of a kid that is tired and hungry – we can feed them, but it is difficult to educate a kid that comes to school in that mindset.”

Ashley Hunter –