An open letter to the public by Valerie Truesdale, Ph. D., Superintendent, Beaufort County School District
Last month, we had a setback at one of our schools. When the new federal rating system was released, one of our schools scored an F. On the new federal system, a 60 is needed to be rated as passing. St. Helena Elementary scored a 53. On the state rating, St. Helena was rated for years as At Risk. St. Helena recently improved to a state rating of Below Average and is still at that level. On a national scale, the school earned a value added score of 4 on 1-5 scale, indicating above average improvement last year. Yet, improvements were not sufficient to score a 60 on the new federal scale. Community members, rightly so, are upset about the F rating.
At recent Board of Education meetings and community meetings on St. Helena, we shared an analysis of the data. St. Helena is one of three Accelerated Learning Schools, a term we use to convey expectations that student learning in high poverty, historically low performing schools must accelerate at a higher rate if students are to keep pace with their peers. The idea is simple: extend learning time with knowledgeable teachers, build strong foundation in reading and math, and emphasize respect and responsibility. For three years, twenty extra days of instruction were added for pupils. Children were taught 55 minutes longer than the state’s minimum school day. Class size targets were below 20 students. We intervened early with aggressive Head Start services inside schools and as a result, are seeing impressive gains in preparedness for kindergarten. We partnered with Comp Health and United Way for additional services.
Yet, with budget cuts, class sizes increased. Math scores overall and fifth grade scores in particular, did not meet expectations. In July, we analyzed data, polled faculty, and increased support for St. Helena. We capped classes at 20 and increased math and reading interventions. With increased support from United Way, which has provided tutoring and mentoring after school, we will be able to extend learning until 5:00 three days/week. Progress in high poverty schools is fragile. We must sustain resources over time to ensure that students who come to us significantly behind their peers are supported as they are stretched.
Community engagement is essential for success. Last weekend, a regional Rotary meeting was held on Hilton
Head Island. Rotary director Dr. Anne Matthews generously sponsored a drive for school supplies for St. Helena Elementary. Last Sunday, 31 boxes of school supplies and more than $10,000 from a silent auction were donated to St. Helena by more than 500 Rotarians from across the Southeast. Rotary District governor, Ed Duryea, was in attendance to support Mrs. Keeler and our St. Helena team. A reporter asked why we have seen more success at Whale Branch schools with the Accelerated Learning model than St. Helena. The Sheldon Township Community Partnership embraced and extended efforts to ensure children learn at high levels. More than 80 percent of the 125 seniors at Whale Branch in 2012 graduated and were accepted to college: impressive.
Some folks say the district “strong-armed” the community to change and has tried to “fix” St. Helena for years and failed. Sheriff P. J. Tanner recently held a St. Helena community meeting and stated that when young adults are engaging in crime and violence, education has failed them. We absolutely agree. Early foundation is critical to forming knowledge and behaviors that sustain a lifetime of choices. I wonder if the young adults engaged in violence today had been supported by strong arms that insisted on solid reading and math skills with personal respect and responsibility, perhaps their choices would be different.
Our entire community should embrace and sustain support for high poverty extended learning time, stretched by our best educators, supported by community partnerships. Poverty is no excuse for poor performance but it does indicate the need for more resources to bridge the gap. Strong liaisons with United Way, Comprehensive Health, Head Start, Neighborhood Outreach Connection, Boys & Girls Clubs, and anyone else who has a desire to help all children learn and grow are essential.
As I pass the baton to a new leadership team, I pray the entire Beaufort County will continue to strive for high expectations for our youth. Every one of our students deserves our best effort.