Alachua County Public Schools have the largest disparity of reading levels between Black and white students in the state, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.
The data shows a gap of 47 percentage points between reading levels of white and Black students in Alachua County, which are 72% and 25% respectively. The reading gap in Alachua County is larger than the statewide average of 29 percentage points.
Every year in Florida, third grade students are tested using the Florida Standards Assessment to determine whether they can read and write well enough to pass to the fourth grade. However, since the passage of the “The Good Cause Exemption” law approved by the Florida Department of Education in 2017, students who fail to meet certain literacy scores can still advance to the next grade level.
GNV Bridge Literacy Director Leah Galione said these “loopholes” have put some students at a disadvantage; there are some middle schoolers who still read at a beginning first-grade level.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who can’t read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. Additionally, two-thirds of students who can’t read well by the end of the fourth grade are more likely to spend time in jail or juvenile detention.
“It's a lack of educational accountability,” Galione said. “This is a community problem we all helped create. We need to give some hope back to our students.”
Micanopy special education teacher Ken Campbell said he believes the disparity is a result of a disproportionate lack of resources allocated to the lower-income public schools in Alachua County.
“Socioeconomics definitely play a role in this,” Campbell said. “The lower-income parts of town don’t have the same ‘A+ level’ of teachers or schools like the higher-income part does.”
Internal obstacles to progress
In 2018, the county’s first equity director, Valerie Freeman, proposed an “equity plan” aimed at closing the proficiency gaps. Her program included expanding existing tutoring programs, logging monthly assessments and screenings and creating support teams to help struggling students.
As with many initiatives over the last two years, COVID-19 delayed the program’s success.
In 2020, Superintendent Carlee Simon attempted to create a partnership between the county schools and the University of Florida’s Literacy Program. She also initiated a reorganization plan in 2021 in which Freeman was reassigned as the principal of Fearnside Family Services Center. The equity director is now Anntwanique Edwards.
Simon hoped these changes would provide a new source of help for struggling students.
However, Simon was fired in a school board meeting March 1 based on accusations of causing “low morale among teachers in the county.”
In the same school board meeting, Alachua County School Board Chair Leanetta McNealy said, “We [the Alachua County School Board] are dysfunctional. Until we come together and fix us to be better, then we can move forward.”
What’s being done
Reading programs like Akwaaba Freedom School promote initiatives to improve literacy rates and work to close racial disparities in early education. Partnered with faculty at the University of Florida and the Children’s Defense Fund, this six-week program helps motivate children to develop their reading skills.
“Students who attend Freedom Schools improve in their reading,” University of Florida School of Teaching and Learning assistant professor Chonika Coleman-King said. “Programs like this help address a major educational issue.”
GNV Bridge is another program tasked with improving the racial reading disparity. Founded in 2020, GNV Bridge is a nonprofit organization based in east Gainesville. The program pairs participants with a volunteer reading coach. For 15 minutes a day, the coach and student work together using the Great Leaps reading fluency program.
Programs like Akwaaba Freedom Schools and GNV Bridge promote initiatives to improve literacy rates and work to close racial disparities in early education.
“We have seen a lot of success,” Galione said. “But, our efforts are just this little dot in a big pond.”