State to work with, not take over, failing schools

State schools chief Jim Rex recommended today that the state Department of Education form a hands-on partnership with 16 chronically low-performing schools to help them boost the academic performance of their students.

The proposal won unanimous approval of the state Board of Education. Rex could have ordered a state takeover of any or all of those schools — much the way his predecessor did in 1999 in Allendale County.

Instead, Rex said he thought the schools, the communities they serve and the state would be better served by joining in what he called a “collaborative” effort to find and share creative solutions to problems nearly all of the schools share.

The 16 schools — all middle and high schools — failed to meet minimum performance goals for three consecutive years. Rex said his staff warned him that more schools are in danger of falling into that category in the future, and he felt compelled to craft a strategy beyond throwing more money at the problems.

“I asked myself: ‘What can I do realistically to help these schools,” Rex said in an exclusive interview with The State. “I see this as one of the most important decisions I’ll make in my term as superintendent.”

Rex said he’s calling the initiative the “Palmetto Priority Schools Project” and will designate one of his senior deputies to supervise it.

Principals from the 16 schools, local superintendents in the districts where those schools are and district school board chairmen will meet with Rex monthly as a group to discuss progress and challenges.

Rex determined that three principals should be relieved of duty at the end of the current school year. The schools are Ridgeland Middle School in Jasper County, Johnson Middle School in Florence 4 (Timmonsville) and Whitlock Junior High School in Spartanburg 7.

Rex said he retains the authority to intervene with more drastic steps if he determined that the collaborative’s efforts were not working.

Five of the 16 schools were from Richland 1; all escaped state sanctions. They are: Alcorn Middle School, C.A. Johnson Preparatory Academy, Eau Claire High School, Gibbes Middle School and W.A. Perry Middle School.

Richland 1 superintendent Allen Coles and school board chairwoman Wendy Brawley praised Rex’s plan.

“It’s a viable solution to takeover,” Brawley said.

The district’s turnaround plan for the five schools — called “A+ Schools” — got kudos from Rex. The plan offers a lengthened school day and school year, including additional pay for teachers who work the extra hours.

A+ Schools teachers will qualify for merit bonuses if their students improve on standardized tests. Rex said Richland 1’s incentive pay plan could become a model for the state.

Rex said he did not yet have an estimate of how much money would be needed to execute his ideas, but said those schools would be getting extra aid — possibly in the form of salary supplements, signing bonuses tied to teacher recruitment and additional personnel who would serve as advisers and classroom mentors.

Rex said a priority is finding teachers who have solid experience teaching math and English-language arts and other core subjects to join the faculties of the schools. He said he would like to see teams of teachers placed in the schools to work together in finding ways to improve learning and test scores.

He also suggested that teachers who sign on and have success would bolster their resumes if they sought to move up the career ladder .

Rex has commitments of help from the presidents of Clemson, the University of South Carolina, S.C. State and Francis Marion. Rex said he also has found interest from foundations looking to invest in innovative school reform. Their roles will be defined in the weeks ahead.

“Everybody in the country is facing the same problem and so far no one has found a solution,” Rex said. Foundation officials “see this as a way to do some work in an area that could make a huge difference.”