Lofty new goal for Palm Beach County 3rd graders: Ambitious or unrealistic?

Palm Beach School Superintendent Robert Avossa talks with 2nd-grade student Sarah Walker, 8, as she eats breakfast at Lincoln Elementary School Monday, August 17, 2015. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa talks with a 2nd-grade student at Lincoln Elementary School. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa is proposing a lofty goal for Palm Beach County’s third-graders. So lofty, in fact, that he concedes that many people may consider it impossible.

Avossa is calling for 75 percent of the county’s third-graders to be reading at grade level within five years. Last year, scarcely more than half did.

It’s the most ambitious of the four metrics that Avossa says should be used to measure the success of his new strategic plan, which aims to realign resources and employees across the school system.

(The other three include raising the high school graduation rate to 90 percent and increasing high-school and post-graduate readiness).

School Board members Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson (File photo/Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post)

School Board members Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson pushed for a more ambitious goal. (File photo)

But Avossa says he thinks the goal is attainable, even though he admits it’s “a stretch goal.”

“We’re going to throw everything at it,” he told Extra Credit. “My goal is to rally all the troops to say in Palm Beach County, as a community, we’ve got to get three-fourths of the kids reading at grade level by third grade.”

“When you set goals, they should be ambitious,” he added, “but they should also be attainable. You don’t want a whole lot of discouraged troops out there.”

If approved by the school board today, that 75-percent goal will be a key component of his strategic plan, which is set for a high-profile unveiling Friday at the Kravis Center in downtown West Palm Beach.

Such an ambitious goal wasn’t part of Avossa’s original plan.

Last week, he suggested that the school district’s stated aim should be to have 65 percent of third-graders reading at grade level in five years.

Last year, just 51 percent of the county’s third-graders were at that level, as measured by their scores on the Florida Standards Assessment. So a jump to 65 percent by 2021 would certainly be a large one.

District records show that the over the last five years the reading-competency rate for third-graders has not risen at all. In fact it dropped last year, from 55 percent to 51 percent, as the state moved to a new test and more difficult standards.

But Avossa’s proposal seemed low to three school board members, who told him last week that they wanted to see the goal set at 80 percent instead.

“I’m just not interested in dreaming little dreams,” school board member Debra Robinson said.

She said that by setting the bar even higher, “it would really, truly be all hands on deck.”

Her suggestion for an 80-percent goal was endorsed by board members Marcia Andrews and Frank Barbieri.

“I think that would put pressure on you to put the budget in the right place,” Barbieri told Avossa.

Goals, of course, are just theoretical targets. But Avossa told board members he wanted to set ones that would be “realistic and achievable.”

Robinson, Barbieri and Andrews disagreed. Setting even higher goals, they argued, would force educators to think even more ambitiously and, perhaps, act more ambitiously.

“This is almost like a life or death thing for these kids,” Robinson said.

Two other board members, Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield, said they worried that 80 percent was too high, but neither opposed the suggestion.

“It worries me a bit,” Brill said, “but if we can do an aspirational goal of 80 percent….then I’m all on board for 80 and 90 percent.”

“But it’s going to be very hard to get there,” she warned.

After that meeting, Avossa revised the goal up, from 65 to 75 percent.

It’s not quite the 80-percent target that the three board members requested, but it’s far higher than what it had been.

“They challenged me,” Avossa said. “They said think bigger, think broader. Let’s push the system.”

He said that to pursue it, he expects to make major changes to how the schools teach in kindergarten through third grade, along with a “big play” in Pre-K. He said he expected to announce more details in the next few months.

Here’s a breakdown of how 3rd graders performed on state reading tests in recent years:

Students reading at grade level in 3rd grade

Students reading at grade level in 3rd grade (Source: Palm Beach County School District)

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