Richland 1 candidates discuss literacy, school uniforms, choice

cclick@thestate.comMay 23, 2013 

The five candidates seeking a seat on the Richland 1 school board were divided Thursday over proposed state legislation that would require third-graders reading below grade level to be held back for a year of reading-intensive instruction.

“If you fail them in the third grade, by the time they are in the 12th grade, they won’t want to graduate,” said Deborah Belton, a church bishop who had held teaching and administration positions in Richland 1. “I do have a problem with retaining children for one element.”

The Read to Succeed legislation proposed by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, was among a number of topics the five candidates discussed during an evening forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The candidates face off in a June 4 special election in hopes of succeeding the late Barbara Scott, a longtime Richland County school board member and clerk of court who died in March.

The reading legislation is aimed at targeting about 3,000 South Carolina children who are struggling to read at grade level. They would be held back only if they could not catch up with their classmates after an intensive summer camp.

Pamela Adams, a social studies and history teacher at Hand Middle School, supports the legislation modeled after a successful Florida reading program. She noted that South Carolina officials are in serious talks with Florida about the elements of the program that could succeed here.

But Doretha Bull and Karen W. Wilson said they preferred a greater emphasis on early childhood education. “Why wait until third grade?” asked Bull, a retired social worker.

Wilson, a former paralegal, advocated a push for expansion of K-4 classes, which is also on the legislative agenda. Reginald Sims, a 20-year veteran of Richland 1 working with special education children in specialized and after-school programs, worried that any reading policy still fails to get at the real dilemma of parents failing to read to their children at home.

“A lot of parents are not spending time with their kids,” Sims said.

Sims, a strong advocate for improving salaries of teachers and classified workers, said he would not endorse pay-for-performance but backed implementation of a school uniform policy. “We are not there to make a fashion statement,” he said.

Bull and Belton agreed, but Wilson said she believed children need to be able to have some self-expression through their clothing. Adams, whose two school-age children attend Meadowfield Elementary and wear school uniforms, said it works at her school but doubts that it would work at all schools.

The candidates expressed some skepticism about public charter schools and were divided about expanding magnet and school choice programs that have succeeded in neighboring Richland 2, although Adams ruminated that it could help Richland 1 become more “progressive and competitive.”

“That’s a double-edged sword,” Wilson said of expansion of selective programs at individual schools. “You have to be sure everyone is not picking the same school.”

“What is going to happen to the schools that no one chooses?” Bull asked.

About 30 people came out to the forum at Benedict College’s newly dedicated Milton Kimpson Center for Graduate Studies and Continuing Education. It was moderated by radio host and retired educator Harvey Elwood Jr., who noted there are about 128,800 voters eligible to cast ballots in the June 4 election.

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