Principal Helps Families Embrace Reading as Hope Against Poverty, Homelessness


Principal Carol Ann Darnell
Idyllwilde Elementary School
Sanford, Fla.

Once considered an affluent area of Central Florida, Seminole County has been especially hard-hit by the economic downturn – so much so that the area was featured in a 2011 60 Minutes report that shed light on the resulting epidemic of homeless children.

But Principal Carol Ann Darnell didn’t need a news report to tell her what she already saw happening in her Title 1 school in Sanford. What she needed was courage and vision to reach a highly mobile student population whose parents are so bogged down in their economic reality that they struggle to support their children’s educations.

One mother and her five children – one of whom is 7 months old – sleep in a single bedroom. They take turns sleeping in the bed. And if the 7-month-old doesn’t sleep, no one sleeps. “It’s just hard for people to realize what these children have gone through the night before they’ve come to school,” says Carol Ann, whose school has a food pantry sponsored by a local church.

But she offers them hope. “We’re trying to make families understand that education is the way out of poverty,” says Carol Ann, in her seventh year at Idyllwilde Elementary School, with a 72 percent free- and reduced-lunch rate. “Success in reading is a gateway to success in life.”

With a pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade student population of about 900, Carol Ann faces daily challenges in addressing her mobile student base. (“There are very few days that go by when we do not have a student move out and a student move in,” she shares.) She meets the challenge by ensuring individualized instruction.

“Our reading instruction each day is based on students’ instructional level,” Carol Ann says. Five years ago, Carol Ann took a bold step by having children change classes for their reading instruction. Each teacher or resource teacher teaches reading to 12 or fewer students.

After each grading period, teachers assess each student’s progress. If a student progresses sufficiently, he is promoted to a new reading group. “Individualized instruction is so important because all children are different and have different needs,” Carol Ann insists.

To ensure student needs are not overlooked, teachers regularly input student data in a shared folder on the school’s network so that Carol Ann and her faculty can constantly evaluate student progress and determine if intervention is needed.

“We have a lot of meetings around here. Every day we’re talking about children. We talk about who’s not making improvements and what we’re going to put in place to make sure they do make improvements. We may need to change the reading program,” she says. “For those children who are ahead, what are we doing for enrichment? You can’t forget about those children.”

But reading has to go beyond the classroom. “Every child reads for 20 minutes every night,” she says, “and they have to write a summary of what they read that night.” The standing assignment is in addition to regular homework. A newly installed reading oasis in the school’s corridor provides a comfortable spot for reading and offers titles that students can sign out and take home.

As much as Carol Ann emphasizes the importance of reading and academic success to students, she recognizes her cause will be lost unless she engages parents. Five times a year, Carol Ann holds parent nights at which English Language Learner teachers work with parents to help them teach their children how to read.

The school also holds parent information nights about helping children prepare for the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Coaches help parents learn how to help their children study for the reading, writing, and math sections of the test.

The school offers a three-week summer reading camp for incoming kindergartners, which includes training sessions for parents to help them know what they and their children can expect in kindergarten.

“Sometimes we’re educating the parents as much as we’re educating the children,” Carol Ann observes.

So far the determined principal’s approach has been a success. When she came to Idyllwilde, it was a D-rated school based upon FCAT scores. “We did a lot of professional development, made sure teachers were using every minute of the day for instruction, and I took away things that wouldn’t lead to any student achievement. After that first year, 25 teachers left me, but we were able to get the school from a D to an A,” she recalls.

As a result, the Florida Department of Education named Carol Ann a Turnaround Principal for increasing the school’s rating by three letter grades. Her next goal: for Idyllwilde to become a National Center for Urban School Transformation award-winning school based on best instructional practices and student proficiency across all curriculum areas.

“At a high-poverty school, you’re always strategizing. You’re always looking at the data,” Carol Ann says. “But it must begin with a love for reading. That could open up a whole life for these students.”
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