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Fiction or Nonfiction: The Reading Gap and Pinellas County Schools

Although I grew up as an avid reader, I watched my classmates struggle under an unsupportive and unhelpful literacy system.

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Senior at St. Petersburg High School. Passionate about education equity and counter-storytelling.

(Image Source: APM Reports)

My mother bought me my first book when I was five years old. While I don’t remember the title of the book, I remember my mother saying, “this is what you need to succeed in this world.” 

She didn’t believe in video games, so my days weren’t filled with playing Grand Theft Auto or Mario Kart . Instead, I grew up reading books from my school’s library and watching cartoons on Nickelodeon and Disney channel on the weekends. 

At night, I would devour books like  “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” and “The Road to Memphis” by Mildred D. Taylor and later discover the amazing works of Sharon M. Draper who explored the Jim Crow era South from the lens of a small Black girl and her family in Mississippi. During the 5th grade I proudly told everyone that my favorite book was “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, which I had read five times. I loved the journey that writers take their readers on and the ability to step into another person's life through a story.

Needless to say, I was an avid reader. So unsurprisingly, at this time I was reading at a 12th grade reading level by the 5th grade. However, many of my peers were not. 

While I was racing to be the first person in my elementary school to read all fifteen sunshine state books, my peers were struggling to read simple passages in our language arts books. During social studies and reading time, my teacher would call on students in our class to read passages out of our books and most of them would struggle to get through the first two sentences without being stunted by an unfamiliar word. 

Unfortunately, they are not alone in their struggle to read and comprehend. Many students across the country and the world struggle to read and comprehend texts that are at or above grade level. In 2019, 44 percent of third grade students in Pinellas County are reading below grade level according to the Florida State Assessment (FSA) according to the Florida Department of Education.  

Students struggling to read in third grade rarely catch up–1 in 6 students who are not proficient by that point fail to graduate high school on time, a rate four times higher than stronger readers. Furthermore, 80 percent of Florida children from low-income families were not proficient readers by 3rd grade in the 2018-2019 school year according to the Florida Department of Education. This reading gap between low-income students and other students has been worsened by the pandemic and is predicted to increase as the pandemic progresses. Educators throughout Pinellas County have endured a lot over the last two years from hybrid teaching to navigating the politics of mask mandates, but issues like inadequate reading comprehension can not be fixed with a simple request or policy change. 

Teachers throughout the country have expressed their concerns with teaching and supporting students during a global pandemic with little resources. This has led to a large increase in teacher retirement which makes students more vulnerable to low academic performance. In order for students to be supported by their teachers and gain the skills necessary to overcome their reading disabilities is to redistribute money towards education programs in our community and prioritize our teachers' safety.