By Alex Saitta
March 17, 2017
I recently read a couple of letters claiming the school board/ school district has improved the past two years. One was written by Phill Bowers and the other by Heidi Williams. The former probably feels that way because he is the chairman and the latter that her liberal friends are now in the school board majority. Other than their thoughts and feelings, neither provided data to support their point. Just saying so, doesn't make it so. When you look at the data, partticularly the academic data, the school district is moving sideways. Plus there are some underlying concerns both seem to have missed.
SC Ready - SC PASS:
I tend to focus on the standard tests all students have to take because I want to measure performance overall. All third to eighth grade students in elementary and middle school take SC Ready and SC Pass in the subjects of English, math, science and social studies. On average, across all grades and subjects, about 77% of the students are at or above grade level. That puts the SDPC 23rd out of 83 school districts in the state. Our ranking here hasn't changed in the past four years. Performance in elementary and middle school continues to move sideways on these standard tests.
Holly Springs: 88.0%
Forest Acres: 85.0%
Six Mile: 82.6%
East End: 82.3%
West End: 81.1%
AR Lewis: 66.8%
Here are the middle school scores Ė average percentage of students at or above grade level in the four subjects.
*Realize some of these schools have higher concentrations of special ed students and that will lower their average score.
By the way, the Youth Leadership Academy had 90.7% of their students at or above grade level on average.
It is ironic Holly Springs was #1 this past year (for the first time). Yes, Phil Bowers, Brian Swords, Judy Edwards, Herb Cooper and Superintendent Dr. Danny Merck closed the best performing school in the county.
They said Holly Springs and AR Lewis had to be closed because a lack of funding. Eight months later, they found $879,000 for needed upgrades and voted to reopen AR Lewis next year for another purpose. The board also approved a $2 million plan to demolish and build administration buildings. Clearly, the money was there, and parents and teachers were misled, if not lied to. Yet none of the board members publicly questioned this, but instead all raised their hands in agreement.
ACT - Work Keys:
In high school all students take the ACT now, as well as Work Keys. On the ACT students scored 18.8, ranking 9th in the state. Last year the district rank was 10th. On Work Keys students scored 88.9 or 18th in the state. Last year we ranked 11th so there was a bit of a drop off last year.
Depending on when you measure, SDPC students rank anywhere from 9th to 23rd in the state. And those rankings haven't changed much year over year. The improvement has been in the graduation rate, which I talked about a lot in my campaign.
In 2010 the graduation rate was 71.2%. In 2010 we set a goal of 80%, during the Dr. Henry Hunt administration. The next two years we beefed up remedial reading, lowered class sizes, expanded the Career Center, and hired graduation coaches. That plus later steps taken are continuing to filter through to graduation and 83.4% of students now graduate on time.
There is now a push to set a 90% goal. I often questioned how much of the recent gain was improvement in achievement and how much was it just pushing students through the system? In 2011 when I became the chairman, Jimmy Gillespie was contacted by a couple of teachers. What they told him (and it was later confirmed by an investigation) was nothing short of scandalous. There was a computer program called APEX. Where if a student failed a course, the student could go to a computer lab, take the course using APEX and make-up the course credit. Teachers were complaining students were flunking out of a course, then just spending a few days on APEX and getting full credit for the course. Students realized this was going on, so some stopped trying in class and just APEXed the course later on. We had the curriculum director (Dr. Pew) investigate. She gave the board a couple of presentations and we made some changes to fix the problem. The Seneca Journal reported on it. During that time I talked to about 10 teachers. Other board members did as well. Many teachers described APEX as a four letter word, or said this or that student didnít deserve to walk across the graduation stage. Some said they were pressured by principals and guidance counselors to sign papers giving students credit using APEX, when they didnít feel the students had put the time in for the course credit.
If this idea of a 90% graduation goal comes up again, I would ask for an evaluation instead. Start by interviewing teachers in 12th grade core courses that have to be passed in order to graduate. Theyíll know if all the graduates are meeting the standards to graduate. I also suggest they ask the technical schools and local university for data on how much remediation Pickens County graduates are requiring when they reach college.
Number of Teachers:
Looking deeper into the districtís report card, the number of teachers fell to 1,015 or the lowest since Iíve been keeping records over the past 15 years. This is the result of the superintendent recommending and the board voting to cut classroom teaching positions over the past three years (all of which I voted against).
The teacher turnover rate of 10.3% this past year is highest it has been. Why? District leaders and those in Columbia have forgotten teachers enter the field because they want to teach their children as they see fit and are trained to do. Today teachers are told exactly what to teach, how to teach it, how long to teach it and when to teach it. And administrators are looking over their shoulders, observing and evaluating every bit of the way to make sure each teacher is doing exactly as told.
In 2011 the percentage of total spending making it to the classroom was 60%. Today that figure has fallen to 54%, a new low, because the new board rather spend money on the 18th activity bus then put it in the classroom.
Each year the state department of education surveys teachers and parents how three issues at each school. Are you satisfied with the learning environment, the physical environment and school-home relations? For instance, 100% of the teachers at Holly Springs were satisfied with the learning environment at their school.
I have this data from 2008 through 2016. Looking at the survey from January 2016 (the last one we have) 88.4% of teachers were satisfied with the learning environment at their school, 91.9% were satisfied with the physical environment, and 87.7% were happy about the school-home relations at their school. That averages to 89.3%. That average was 93.0% (2015), 93.3% (2014), 91.9% (2013), 93.0 (2012), 91.9% (2011), 91.9% (2010), 91.1% (2009) and 91.6% (2008).
The last reading of 2016 at 89.3% is the lowest since Iíve been keeping records. Realize teachers received 3 pay raises in August 2015, or months before they took this survey in early 2016. And the survey was taken before they closed AR Lewis and Holly Springs.