South Carolinas education superintendent wants to create a new district specifically designed to deal with the states failing schools a move that if passed by the General Assembly would be a first for the Palmetto State.
In a statement made at Wednesdays Board of Education meeting, Mick Zais said he would ask the General Assembly to create a new statewide school district, separate from the Department of Education.
The purpose of this special Recovery District, Zais said, would be to turn around failing schools wherever they may be in South Carolina.
This turnaround district will give parents and students trapped in a failing school the opportunity to transform their school, he said. They wont have to wait for new leadership in their district office or wait for the election of new school board members. They will be empowered to make the changes needed to meet their unique requirements.
The idea for the new district is modeled after programs in two other states, states that Zais said have used special districts to turn around underperforming schools.
This model has proven very effective in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana as well as in Tennessee, he said.
Zais said the proposal will be part of a pitch he will make to the General Assembly during next years legislative session to modernize the states Educational Accountability Act, a proposal that would also include assigning letter grades to schools and school districts.
Zais announcement came after a morning spent hearing presentations from seven South Carolina schools two in Richland 1 declared to be in a state of emergency.
After the states November 2011 school report cards were issued, the state department, under the new superintendents leadership in January, began reviewing those schools designated as persistently low-achieving schools.
Each of the districts heads and key staff members within the seven schools was invited to make presentations to the state board Wednesday on what they were doing to turn their schools around.
Columbias Richland 1 schools that continue to be on the states Palmetto Priority list include Heyward Gibbes Middle School and W.A. Perry Middle School, though superintendent Percy Mack said his district has been working hard to rectify the situation.
While both schools have made some gains over the years, our district acknowledges that we have not historically met the significant gains in these two schools, Mack told the boards policy and legislative committee. But our desire is to see that this gain be sustained over time.
Mack also pointed out that as of 2007, Richland 1 had six schools on the list. Four since have been removed and achieved better standing.
Our folks have worked hard to move these schools forward, and I dont see them stopping anywhere short in getting off these lists, he said.
Zais expressed his frustration in working within the options currently available to the state Board of Education, saying the three options the board has tried, including removing principals and assuming management of an entire district Allendale County in 1999 have been largely unsuccessful.
The third option, providing technical assistance and advice to the seven failing schools, he said, was the only option remaining.
It is also the least effective, he said. South Carolina taxpayers have provided millions of dollars in technical assistance to these schools with little or nothing to show for it.
Details have not yet been finalized on the new district. But Zais said it would not require any new taxpayer dollars.
We will repurpose existing funds to the new turnaround district. The failing schools will be funded as they are today, with a mixture of local, state, and federal dollars, Zais said.
Jay Ragley, spokesman for the department of education, said the new district would also include any future failing schools. He said the department has identified an additional 19 schools that could meet the states criteria as persistently failing within a year.
Zais said local school boards and local administrators who have failed these schools and their children wont have control over them.
The turnaround district will provide oversight of the schools, but the schools will be operated much like public charter schools, he said. They will be held to the same state and federal accountability standards, but have the flexibility to innovate to meet the needs of their students.
Sen. John Courson, who chairs the senates Education Committee, declined to speculate on the success of such a proposal within the Legislature without seeing the details. But he did say Zais timing was good.
He has come up with this in July, six months before going into session, so we have time to vet his idea, he said.
Phil Owens, R-Pickens, chairman of the Houses Education and Public Works Committee, could not immediately be reached for comment.
While Courson said adding an additional district goes against the grain of trying to reduce or consolidate the states districts, he called the proposal novel and said he would provide Zais with an opportunity to appear before the committee.
In the meantime, all seven schools were approved for continued technical assistance from the state on Wednesday.
Overall, Mack said he was pleased with receiving the continued support from the board.
But he touted local control.
I think that local districts work very hard for their schools, he said. They have a vested interest in their schools, and they will work hard to make sure their schools will achieve at the highest levels. ...
So putting them in a new school district sounds like when the state takes over, he said. And state officials havent had particular success in that area when that happens.
But the jury is still out.