Fix schools from the start

August 24, 2015 - MSS In The News

High schools in Charleston County that are struggling because students have fled to other schools need the full attention of the community — educators, businesses and concerned citizens. The situation is simply unacceptable for the students who are left behind.

But while it is critical to address the plight of these high school students now, before it is too late for them, the focus must be broader.

Students should not be entering high school reading at or below a fourth grade level. But then students should not be entering first grade without the academic and social skills kindergartens are expected to teach them.

And young children should not be entering pre-school on the losing side of the “word gap”. As described by Patty Bennett-Uffelman, Janet Segal and Steve Skardon in a letter to the editor on this page, low-income children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than higher-income children by the age of 3.

The authors are involved in an ambitious project called Begin with Books that sends a book a month to children from birth to age 5.

Educators have long said that beginning learning in early childhood is vitally important for long-term success in school, and programs like Begin with Books surely help.

But it is the responsibility of the school district and the state to do what it takes to implement an effective early childhood program that gives children a better chance to be successful in school from the beginning.

One reason Meeting Street Academy and Meeting Street at Brentwood Elementary are knocking down stereotypes about underserved children is that they begin with 3-year-olds. They also have two teachers in each class — teachers who simply do not accept failure from their students. And the efforts are paying off for the children whose standardized test scores are far superior to their contemporaries in other schools.

If it requires the Charleston County School District re-allocating its resources to strengthen and expand its early childhood programs, so be it. That means adequate staffing, willing and well-trained teachers and efforts to get to know students’ families and to earn their support.

The district should see that students are prepared to go from 3-year-old programs to kindergarten and kindergarten to first grade.

They should be able to read at grade level before leaving elementary school. If that means more focus on literacy, the CCSD must make it happen.

“Left behind,” a five-day Post and Courier series that concluded Sunday, focused on North Charleston High School, where enrollment has shrunk because many have chosen to attend other schools. It chronicled some of the family, social, legal and health burdens that the students who remain deal with.

Unfortunately, students in all age groups have to deal with those issues. Those who have a stable school experience and are achieving academic success have an advantage over those who don’t.

Some people blame school choice for schools shrinking. And the reason they are shrinking is indeed that families are choosing alternative schools. But here’s one reason they are leaving.

William H. Lewis, the former chief operating officer of the Charleston County School District, writes in a guest column on today’s Commentary page that one root problem is that community schools have to serve over-age students who should be taught separately. And often community leaders have resisted changes to neighborhood schools, insisting on retaining small community schools and thereby inadvertently compromising students’ education.

So by all means, school officials must make sure all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality, comprehensive high schools.

But start long before that, so that when students reach high school, they’ll be ready to make the most of it.

The Post and Courier

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