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Pint-Sized Ornithologists Work Towards Closing Achievement Gap In Pinellas County

At the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, a dozen or so kindergartners gather for a pop quiz, next to a coop holding an injured bird.

“Name a bird that can fly,” asks teacher Victoria Rhodes.

“A vulture and a pelican," a student quickly answers.

"Now," Rhodes pauses, "name a bird that cannot fly."

Kleanish Reynolds, 6, raises her hand and offers "penguin" as one possible correct answer.

These pint-sized ornithology enthusiasts have traveled 30 miles to the bird rehabilitation facility from Maximo Elementary School in St. Petersburg. The field trip is part of Summer Bridge, which is open to all students in Pinellas County.  This year, nearly 8,000 students will participate.  At the kindergarten level, kids work for six weeks on a project. And at Maximo, that plan is for the birds.

Credit Cathy Carter / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
The Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores receives about 2,000 injured birds annually.

“Each day you will learn about a different bird,” Rhodes said. “You will write about that bird, you will read about that bird, and you will chart information about that bird.”

She's one of about 1,000 educators who have signed up to work this summer in Pinellas County.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, most students lose math skills during the summer months. And kids from lower-income families will also fall behind in reading. Rachel Gwaltney is the group's Director of Policy. She says summer programs can cost upwards of $300 on average. That means summer learning opportunities can also be out of reach for middle-income families.

“Our more privileged students are going to summer camp, they're going to museums, they have regular access to libraries, while our lower income kids have fewer choices,” she said.

Gwaltney says that disparity gap is like a faucet. During the regular school year, resources are turned on. There are teachers, books, meals and medical attention. But in the summer, that faucet of support is turned off. That disproportionately affects kids like the kindergartners at Maximo Elementary, where 84 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“So that by the end of fifth grade, you've got a two-to-three-year achievement gap that's mostly attributable to what's happened during the summer months,” she said. “And what we're seeing is that that gap continues to grow throughout high school.”

Credit Cathy Carter / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
As part of the curriculum, students toured the grounds of the Indian Shores facility to learn more about wild birds, their natural habitat, avian medicine and rehabilitation.

That's why education advocates say programs like Summer Bridge are so important. Money for the Pinellas County program comes from the state's academic intervention program. For fiscal year 2017, it cost $35.5 million.

But these types of programs could be in jeopardy at the federal level. In his 2018 budget proposal, President Donald Trump calls for cutting the 21st Century Community Learning Center, the only federal program expressly dedicated to summer learning.

Shana Rafalski, Executive Director of Elementary Education for Pinellas County Schools, said the Trump budget also doesn't add any more money to Federal Title One funding for low-income students.

“Any time that there's fewer dollars, whether it's to our summer programs or anything else, it means that we have to prioritize and make decisions about what to do with scarce resources,” she said.

Even so, Rafalski says the Pinellas school district believes Summer Bridge is worthwhile. 

“Because it's something that's really of value. So it's always our hope that our other agencies, both federal and state, continue to be supportive so that we can continue to provide that for our students.”

And she says, when it comes to crafting future budgets, if lawmakers need any evidence that summer learning works, the district can prove it.

"We've got data that does support that children who attend do fare better as they enter into the new school year," she said.

But the soon-to-be 1st graders at Maximo Elementary aren't thinking about policy or metrics. They're too busy jockeying to be the next student to get called on by Miss Rhodes.

“Do penguins like to eat?” she asks. 

“They like to eat fish!” one quickly answers.

With that, the students wander over to an enclosure holding pelicans. 

And spoiler alert, pelicans also like to eat fish.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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