STUDENTS LEARNING ON OVERTIME Several Duval Schools Offer Weekend Tutoring Sessions, Allowing More One-on-One Help to Improve Test Scores

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Rather than turning on Rugrats and other Saturday morning cartoons, hundreds of students in Duval County are switching on their brains.

At several schools, students returned to class this morning to improve their reading, writing and math skills.

The traditional school week of five days is quietly taking on a sixth as schools offer students extra, voluntary time to meet standards created by administrators or mandated by government. Weekend sessions have been created in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and elsewhere in Florida.

Duval County's focus is preparing students for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and tutoring them to reach the goals touted by Superintendent John Fryer, such as fluency in reading by the end of third grade.

Some researchers wonder if Saturday programs impede academic performance by infringing on the two days of rest students need.

Those who run the programs say the extra time allows teachers to give students one-on-one assistance and tailor lessons to meet individual needs.

"This is our safety net," said Elise Stevens, the literacy coordinator at Highlands Middle School. "When you ask students to do more, some will need more time to do it in. It would be irresponsible of us not to offer the additional time."

Stevens this year implemented a two-hour, voluntary Saturday program to aid seventh- and eighth-graders struggling in reading. About 30 students attend each week.

The pressure to improve test scores is high. Based in large measure on student FCAT scores, schools receive a grade from the state Department of Education. Schools earning an "A" or improving their marks receive bonus money from the state.

Those receiving an "F" twice during a four-year period are declared failing. Students attending those schools become eligible for vouchers to attend a private or parochial school.

Duval County public schools will administer the FCAT writing exam Feb. 21. The math and reading sections are scheduled for March.

School system officials are not sure how many schools are offering Saturday classes. Besides Highlands Middle, others known include Carter G. Woodson Elementary, George Washington Carver Elementary, St. Clair Evans Academy and West Jacksonville Elementary.

Nina Jennings enrolled her fourth-grader, Anna, in the Saturday program at Carter G. Woodson because of the consequences associated with FCAT. Fourth-graders who fail the exam and have reading problems may be held back.

"It is such an important test," Jennings said. "This has been helping her concentrate and focus. I know it is in her, she just needs some more help. …