Incorporate existing program into turnaround plan

August 14, 2012 

IT’S HARD enough to turn around persistently failing schools under ideal circumstances. But the circumstances are never ideal. The schools largely reflect the pathologies of the surrounding neighborhoods, where deep poverty, broken families, high crime rates and a lack of role models conspire to produce children who are agonizingly difficult to teach.

Worse, there’s often a perverse sense of pride: Teachers and administrators have obviously failed the children, but if you send in outsiders to help, a resentful community sabotages their efforts.

With just such an experience in Allendale County still fresh in everybody’s minds, then-Education Superintendent Jim Rex decided five years ago to try a third way. Under his Palmetto Priority Schools program, each of the 16 schools that had scored “unsatisfactory” on state report cards for three years in a row formed a collaborative involving school and district leaders, officials from his department, state colleges and community organizations, which designed and implemented an aggressive improvement plan.

It was much smarter than the options in state law: fire the principals, take over the schools and run them from the state Education Department or keep providing the same sort of assistance that hadn’t gotten them out of the basement. But it depended on the cooperation of the very officials who either could not or would not fix those schools in the past. And indeed, only seven of the original 16 schools have graduated from the program, and four of them found themselves back on the failing list this year.

Faced with the latest batch of persistently failing schools, Education Superintendent Mick Zais saw the same problems with the options in the law. But rather than working with the school districts, he proposes to free the failing schools from the local leadership that has failed to improve them.

Moving the schools into a statewide district designed to turn them around is an exciting idea. It addresses the main drawback of the Priority Schools program. It also encourages innovation, by turning them into charter schools, which are given flexibility to meet state standards and are governed by parents and teachers. That’s important because the traditional approach obviously hasn’t worked.

But this approach could be a monumental failure if it isn’t well-managed.

The sad fact is that in many failing schools, the parents, teachers and communities have failed the children every bit as much as the district administration. While some might be able to turn things around on their own, many will need help. Dr. Zais can’t just put them on autopilot and move on; when he became superintendent, these schools became his responsibility.

We hope he is correct in believing that his plan won’t require any additional money. But just saying it doesn’t make it so. One of the biggest problems in failing schools is that the best teachers usually don’t want to go anywhere near them. Convincing them otherwise takes money, and Dr. Zais needs to be prepared to find and spend extra money to lure those good teachers if he finds that his low-budget approach isn’t working.

Finally, it’s important that the superintendent avoid South Carolina’s favorite political trap: reinvention for the sake of reinvention. Although it is far from perfect, the Priority Schools program has proven effective. Of the 43 schools that entered the program in its first three years, 26 graduated. That’s extraordinary progress when you consider that most of them had been failing for decades before we had a system to quantify that.

The problem is that 17 haven’t graduated, and we haven’t figured out how to maintain the improvement once the schools leave the program’s nurturing environment. Those are significant shortcomings, and Dr. Zais’ approach shows tremendous potential to fill in those gaps. But he must resist the temptation to dismantle a program that’s getting us part-way there. Instead, he needs to incorporate the best parts of that program into his new plan. Otherwise, we’re likely to find ourselves taking two steps forward and one back — or worse.

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