Schools push to keep kids reading during holiday break

By Christina Veiga and Jeffrey Pierre

Lewis Anthony, a junior at Miami Jackson Senior High, plays during a multischool band arrangement at Allapattah Middle School's "12 Nights of Literacy" event.
Lewis Anthony, a junior at Miami Jackson Senior High, plays during a multischool band arrangement at Allapattah Middle School's "12 Nights of Literacy" event. Miami Herald Staff

Students may be counting down the days until the upcoming winter break. But two weeks out of school is a cause for worry for school leaders like Allapattah Middle Principal Bridget McKinney.

For one thing, Allapattah struggles on state tests that are used to punish low-performing schools. So every minute spent in the classroom — or out of it — counts.

Then there’s this: Every school break tends to bring tragedy to area schools, who often lose a student to street violence, McKinney said.

She has a solution: Literacy. The school has teamed up with pro athletes, local school bands and Miami-Dade County teachers to keep students busy through the break. They’re encouraging kids to read by sharing real-life examples of why reading matters beyond the classroom.

“You're in competition with a thousand things that the child can do other than pick up a book and read,” McKinney said. “Today you have to find a way to engage them in a way they find interesting and where they can have a reason and purpose to read.”

This week, McKinney opened Allapattah’s doors to more than 400 students from 17 Liberty City-area schools. They came for “12 Nights of Literacy,” an event named for each night kids spend away from school on winter vacation. In 12 classroom sessions, each with a different approach at literacy, students were introduced to her holistic approach.

Want to play pro sports? You better know how to read a business contract, Hall of Fame Dolphins guard Larry Little told student athletes. Like to cook? You’ll have to read recipes in the kitchen, culinary teacher David Cole told kids. Plan on joining the school marching band? You should also plan on having to read sheet music.

Just ask the students in the marching bands at Allapattah Middle, Miami Northwestern and Miami Jackson Senior High. Keeping to the theme of the night, members were presented with a challenge: They had an hour to read and learn a new song before coming together for the first time ever. They delivered a flawless performance that had audience members clapping to the beat.

Driving all this are upcoming state tests. Students will have to take a new standardized test this spring. Officials say it will assess deeper learning, so old test-taking techniques aren’t likely to help students this time around.

Last year, Allapattah was slapped with an F grade from the state because of its performance on standardized tests. This year, the school improved to a D. The school has increased performance among its lowest-scoring kids; still only 23 percent of students passed the required reading tests, according to state records.

“I have to take every opportunity, even on their break, to engage them. I can’t have that disconnect,” McKinney said.

School grades are controversial and don’t take into account issues of poverty, which studies show has a profound impact on school performance.

According to the Florida Department of Education, 95 percent of students at Allapattah get free or discounted meals because their family can't afford it. To qualify for the discount, a family of four has to make less than $24,000, according to federal guidelines.

That’s why McKinney is getting everyone involved when it comes to getting kids reading. And that includes parents, said T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

“Our principles, our teachers and our school board members–– they will do their part,” Fair said. “I hope you will leave today with a commitment to make sure that everything we do here in the daytime with your children gets repeated in the nighttime.”