Jason Lee is a rarity in public education — a man teaching a regular class of bright-eyed third graders.
This past school year, Lee was one of two men to fill that role at Arden Elementary School in North Columbia.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like working with inner-city youth because there is so much potential there,” said Lee, 33. “They need that guidance from a male perspective. I feel like I provide that.”
With an enrollment of 360 students, Arden Elementary, in the heart of Eau Claire, is among Richland 1’s smallest schools.
“The student body is constantly becoming more diverse,” principal Diane James wrote in her annual message on the school’s most recent performance report card.
With a student body that is 20 percent Hispanic and nearly 80 percent African-American, it’s “a challenge to find ways to address the needs of all children,” James wrote.
Of the 18 children in Lee’s third-grade class this past year, almost all are minorities.
For the most part, Lee said, his students were willing to learn and try their best to earn good grades. Lee feels confident his students’ scores on Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests will reflect that effort, although Arden had a school-wide rating of “below average” for the 2006-07 school year.
One of the toughest parts of Lee’s job is reaching out to parents to enlist their help and keep them informed about their children’s progress.
“Parent interaction is lacking,” is how he diplomatically phrases it.
While students from Columbia College just down Main Street pitch in as tutors sometimes, Lee said Arden “could use more volunteers and tutors to help these kids.”
One of toughest challenges, he said, is ensuring all his students are keeping pace with classmates, especially with reading skills.
“When you have 18 kids like I do, I find it difficult sometimes to focus on teaching the two or three kids who can’t read as well and also do the lessons I have to do for the other kids,” he said.
This coming school year, James has assigned Lee to move up to the fourth grade and teach the same group of students for a second year in a row — a strategy to give them some stability in the classroom.
The next school year will be a tough one for Lee and his family. His wife is scheduled to deploy to Iraq with her Army unit, and he’ll be a single father temporarily, caring for two daughters, ages 2 and 12.
Despite the challenges, Ardenis an enjoyable place to teach, he said. “It’s a constant challenge. Something’s being brought to the table every day. I love seeing them succeed and make progress. I like being there to cheer them on.”