HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Nine Hillsborough County schools are trying a fresh approach to literacy with one goal in mind — improving reading levels districtwide. 

  • New reading program in Hillsborough to help students
  • Program to be launched at 9 under-performing schools
  • Program aimed to boost reading levels across district

Over the summer, teachers in Hillsborough County trained for the launch of a new reading pilot program at nine of the county's lowest-performing elementary schools.  

“I do believe this curriculum will be a game-changer in the classroom,” Assistant Superintendent Tricia McManus said. 

The schools selected include Cleveland, Dover, Folsom, Forest Hills, Robles, McDonald, Palm River, Potter, and Shaw Elementary Schools. 

All of these schools received D ratings in recent years. 

Forest Hills is currently ranked highest out of the nine schools, with a C rating. 

Principal Rachael O’Day hopes the new pilot program will help get them to an A. 

“We’re very fortunate because I think that everyone wants the very best things in their teachers’ hands to empower students to be their very best,” she said. 

The new program is called Expeditionary Learning or EL for short — a comprehensive literacy program centered around culturally relevant topics. 

The idea is that these topics will give students a deeper comprehension of the text they read. 

They'll spend a little less than two hours with the new learning material each day. 

For example, students at Forest Hills will learn about human rights through books like Esperanza Rising. 

“Exploring what their rights were, what they are, and what they’re going to be,” O’Day explained. 

Only 54 percent of students passed the state reading test last year in Hillsborough County. 

Third-grade teacher Tayler Holloway sees the effects of students’ struggles with reading. 

“It affects them across all subject areas. If you can’t read you can’t figure out a math problem,” Holloway said. “It causes frustration and definitely lack of self-esteem among them. They don’t believe they can be successful because of their deficiency.”

The district hopes to emulate school districts like Palm Beach County, which uses the curriculum. Their district is currently at an A rating. 

Hillsborough County schools have also used the same curriculum since 2014, and educators say it's time for a change. 

“It was a decision made not by central office leaders saying schools need to do this. It was a decision that was brought to us by teachers and schools,” McManus said. 

The district partnered with the University of Virginia to develop the program. 

It's being paid for with a Title IV federal grant for turnaround schools. 

However, the district can't roll out the new curriculum until two years from now.