Reading Rainbow

Sarasota's Rocket Phonics Works With Local Kids to Boost Reading Scores

The pilot program meets at Janie's Garden in Newtown and aims to build the project toward its 20-student capacity.

By Catherine Hicks/Community News Collaborative October 9, 2023

Carlos works his way through a workbook page.

Carlos works his way through a workbook page.

Decades of research points to the negative implications of low reading scores in elementary school, which are often associated with negative outcomes later in life.

Rocket Phonics, a Sarasota-based nonprofit, aims to address those risks by introducing play-based phonics tutoring to elementary students.

“Our goal is to make either Manatee or Sarasota the No. 1 school district [in reading] in the state in the next three years,” says Dr. Stephen Guffanti, the founder of Rocket Phonics. “There are about 17,000 kids in the two counties that are not at grade level or below grade level.”

Guffanti, who spent his career as a physician in California, developed the Rocket Phonics curriculum to help his daughter, Stephanie, “who, at 5 years old, declared she was not going to learn to read,” he says.

The program started as games for Stephanie and her dad to play with her stuffed animals. The animals “never really caught on to reading, but by the third grade, Stephanie was reading at a third grade reading level,” Guffanti says.

After moving to Florida in 2014, Guffanti met Pamela Gevette, an educator with three decades of experience. In 2018, Gevette attended an event in Sarasota’s Newtown neighborhood and saw an opportunity to help.

 “It was an event for reaching families where they spoke on the difficulties of students not knowing how to read, and I knew the solution to the problem,” says Gevette, who connected Guffanti to the City of Sarasota’s Newtown Redevelopment Agency’s advisory board.

The initiative was funded with a $5,000 award from the Gould Family Trust Foundation at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which was matched by the city. These days, the pilot program meets after school at Janie’s Garden, a Newtown apartment complex with an eye toward building the project toward its 20-student capacity.

Students and an instructor play a version of Go Fish with cards that each feature a different sound.

Students and an instructor play a version of Go Fish with cards that each feature a different

In a recent session, about 10 children interacted with instructors, playing card games based on reading sounds or working their way through colorful workbooks.

One of the key reasons for the success of the Rocket Phonics system, according to Gevette and Guffanti, has been the replacement of the phonics teaching system with emphasis on sight words and memorization.

“There are 800,000 words in the English language. Nobody can memorize all of them. If you don’t have a method of attacking new words, you’re going to be lost,” says Guffanti. “Now, you may do fine in school, but when you’re out in the world, and you’re trying to read words that you have not memorized, and you have no new word-attack skills, you’re lost. Two thirds of the population in the United States can’t memorize fast enough to keep up with grade level, so they can’t even read their textbooks.”

Guffanti hopes that one day Rocket Phonics will be used as a method to train educators so that it can be implemented in schools.

He says that one student started the program in kindergarten, with test scores too low to advance to first grade. By the first benchmark test for first grade, the child was already at a second- or third-grade reading level.

A study performed by UCLA tested the rate of growth and success rate of the program, finding that the average reading-level gain per student was a year in just three months of tutoring.

Patricia Deverna, 75, a retired teacher, was searching for the “right venue” to continue engaging with students when a friend introduced her to Rocket Phonics.

“I still had energy, I still had a love for the kids. I just needed the right venue,” Deverna says of her urge to volunteer. “Working with the kids isn’t really working. It’s a win-win situation where I am using my time for something enjoyable and valuable. I see the value in these little minds that are so curious. The confidence they gain from making these baby steps will follow them into the classroom and into life.”

The program is always open to new volunteers, and encourages those even without education backgrounds to sign up if they enjoy spending time with kids.

“One of the things that many people who are thinking about volunteering are concerned with is whether they're capable of teaching a child to read,” says Guffanti. “The answer to that is that if you’re capable of having fun with a 6-year-old and consistently losing at Go Fish or whatever the game is, you can do the teaching. The purpose of the tutor is to have fun, because the child associates reading with fun.”

Catherine Hicks is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach her at [email protected].

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