Low-performing schools put to the test

brobinson@thestate.com July 6, 2008 

When school starts this fall, residents of North Columbia should know whether their schools have improved enough to stand on their own, away from state oversight.

Five schools that serve the area are on the state Department of Education’s “watch list” for chronically underperforming schools.

Low test scores over the previous three years landed Alcorn and Gibbes Middle schools and Eau Claire High School on the Education Department’s “Palmetto Priority” schools list in 2007. Students consistently performed poorly on tests and failed to meet minimum standards for growth.

Also on that list are W.A. Perry Middle School and C.A. Johnson Preparatory Academy, which serve students who live in North Columbia.

The state Department of Education could have taken over the schools but gave them a last chance to improve. State education Superintendent Jim Rex also assigned several of his deputies to help the schools.

David Rawlinson, who heads the state’s team, said the schools had good plans for boosting student performance.

“Indications are that all schools are moving forward,” Rawlinson said, “but we need to actually validate that” with test results.

Under former superintendent Allen J. Coles, Richland 1 took an aggressive approach in confronting academic performance issues at all five schools. The district’s school board agreed a year ago to spend $6.2 million on remedies, which included:

• Extended school days

• Additional teacher contract time for training and incentive pay tied to student achievement

• Student support teams to provide one-on-one and small-group tutoring

• Partnership programs with local colleges and universities

• Full-time parent/community liaisons

• New books, computers and other materials, along with different teaching methods, that focus on reading and writing.

Ernest Dupree, the Richland 1 administrator charged with oversight of the five schools, agreed scores should improve. But, he added, “A number of challenges still exist.”

“Those schools have a clear understanding what needs to be done and I think they’ve shown significant progress,” Dupree said.

Plans to improve the middle schools focused on identifying students who needed extra help, said Beth Howard, the state’s liaison with that group.

“They were looking at the individual child rather than the group as a whole,” Howard said. “We felt that was encouraging.”

Dupree said faculties at all five schools have been coached on how to interpret testing data to make decisions about which students need extra instruction.

“That’s the key, we think, to moving children forward,” he said.

Part of the plan to improve student learning is to increase parental involvement in the schools. That seems to be working.

Principals have seen more parents attending meetings at schools and showing up to do volunteer work, Dupree said.

“Our efforts to get them involved seem to be working,” he said. “We’re very encouraged.”

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