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Florida Principal: This Reading Policy Is Changing Lives

• ExcelinEd

Today’s guest post is by Eileen Castle, a former principal in Polk County, Florida.

When Florida adopted its K-3 reading policy in 2002, I was the principal of Lake Alfred Elementary in Polk County, Florida. Our school had a diverse, economically challenged student population.

By 2002, our school grade had improved from a D to a C. (Florida began using a data-driven A-F school grading accountability system in 1999.) Receiving data-based feedback from the state on our performance and growth for the first time was game changing. It empowered me as a principal to make informed staffing decisions and provide academic interventions for struggling students.

So when Florida’s new K-3 reading policy challenged schools to ensure all students were able to read by the end of third grade, we were ready for the challenge.

Florida’s K-3 reading policy begins in kindergarten to ensure all students enter fourth grade with reading skills they need to learn and succeed. The policy focuses on intervention, with retention as a last resort for students who are severely below grade level and need more time to develop their reading skills.

While the task of ensuring all students read on grade level by the end of third grade was daunting, I knew it was essential for the future success of our students. Reading is the most psychologically charged subject taught in school. The sooner you learn to read, the more successful you are in school and the better you feel about yourself as a student.

There are also other obvious implications of illiteracy. If students can’t read, they can’t solve word problems in math, read about science and social studies, or respond in writing to what they read.

Faced with these challenges, a struggling fourth-grade reader can easily fall further behind, year after year. This explains, in part, why low-income children are eight times more likely to drop out of high school if they can’t read proficiently by third grade.

In 2002, Florida raised the bar with the enactment of the K-3 reading policy. We realized we had to improve our reading instruction if we were going to increase student reading achievement.

We made two major instructional changes. Teachers began systematically teaching vocabulary students needed to know to comprehend their selections. Teachers also asked students to answer higher order thinking questions before, during and after reading.

We added 75 more minutes of reading instruction for first through third grade students. We also scheduled struggling readers for an additional 60 minutes of reading every day. Resource teachers taught students to read like “good readers” by asking and answering questions during reading.  Paraprofessionals had non-fluent readers individually practice timed readings every day to increase fluency.

In our first year of these changes, we improved substantially in reading proficiency and learning gains. Our school earned a B grade for the first time in 2003. We continued to improve, and in 2004 we earned the first of six consecutive A grades. These high grades reflect the effectiveness of our instruction and the efforts of our students to increase reading proficiency.

One third-grade student with special needs was below grade level when he enrolled in our school. After strengthening his reading skills through extra reading classes, he passed the state reading assessment and scored proficient in math because he could finally understand word problems.

Another student who had been retained transferred to our school to repeat third grade. This student read fluently but struggled with comprehension. After learning in extra reading classes how “good readers” comprehend, she ended third grade as an advanced reader!

One of my favorite stories includes two brothers. The older had been retained, and both brothers were in third grade and at risk of retention. They wanted to pass the state reading assessment and advance to fourth grade together. The older brother tutored the younger, and they both participated in extra reading classes and reading fluency practice. That year, both scored proficient on the reading assessment demonstrating that they were ready to move to fourth grade.

The decision to retain a child should never be taken lightly. No parent wants to discover their child isn’t ready for promotion. However, the pain and frustration of retaining a child in third grade pales in comparison to watching a child struggle throughout school because he or she can’t read well, or worse yet, learning your teenager is functionally illiterate.

Before 2003, too many Florida students were severely below grade level in reading. From 1998 to 2013, Florida reduced the number of functionally illiterate fourth-grade students from 47 percent to 25 percent, according to the Nation’s Report Card.  

While this is a great step forward for fourth-grade reading, these efforts prepare students for the ultimate goal of graduating from high school ready for college and a career. Florida’s high school graduation rate has increased for the past eight consecutive years.  Best of all, Florida minority students are making exceptional gains. Between 1999 and 2014, graduation rate for African-American students increased 23 percentage points and graduation rates for Hispanic students increased 28 percentage points.

Through the hard work of educators, parents and students, Florida’s K-3 reading policy is changing lives and brightening futures. I applaud the leaders in Florida and other states who have and will continue to work boldly on behalf of students.

Eileen Castle ( is an education consultant and writer and FSC Adjunct Faculty member. She is a former principal and district office staff member in Polk County, Florida Public Schools.

Eileen Caste with a former student

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