There are 1,200 employees in the school district who possess a teaching certificate, and thousands of years of experience in the classroom. The superintendent, department heads, principals and teachers don't need a lot of board direction when it comes to educating students in math, English, science and social studies.
When I look back over my 8 years on the board, areas where the district has struggled the most are the areas it knows least -- the non-academic aspects of the business. This includes budget management, personnel management, buildings and public relations.
Buildings can anyone deny the building program was a disasater the first two years of the program? Tens of millions of dollars were wasted. Can anyone deny the TIF agreement and lack of oversight cost the district millions? How few would argue the financing of the building plan (the Greenville Plan) was a financial and public relations success? Will anyone say that Dr. Lee D'Andrea's widespread practice of clearing out department heads and hiring externally helped the district?
So the past two years the school board's focus has been in those areas of finance, building sales, personnel management and policies and procedures.
However, the board has taken two primary steps that are and I believe will have a major impact on the education performance of our district. One was in leadership of the curriculum effort. The other is the focus on the graduation rate.
New Curriculum Leadership:
This was an issue going back to 2009. It became apparent to me in 2010, after board members visited all the schools and had some frank discussions with principals and teachers. While many felt the district had the necessary personnel and resources in place, the curriculum department lacked leadership.
A new direction was needed. At first meeting we had after I became chairman the board addressed the issue in very matter of the fact terms. Overcoming resistance from the administration, during the next few months steps were taken to replace the curriculum director, Dr. Kelly Pew was sought out, promoted, and given the reigns of the curriculum department.
Immediately, Pew restored direction and focus to the curriculum effort, that is already paying off.
I want to thank all 2100 employees of the Pickens County School District for the academic improvement this past year. It is impressive.
The PASS is taken by 3rd to 8th graders in five subject areas. On average 78.7% tested at or above grade level -- an increase of 2 percentage points versus the year before. The district jumped from 21st to 19th in the state on PASS.
In high school, 84.0% of students passed both parts of the high school exit exam on the first attempt. That is an increase from 83.3% the year before. The high school exit exam or HSAP is taken by all tenth graders. The district ranks 16th in the state of 85 districts on the HSAP.
A few months ago Dr. Pew was promoted to superintendent, and Sharon Huff was promoted to curriculum director. Huff was the principal of Daniel High, which is near the top in the state academically. We expect a continuation of this success concerning the education of our students.
The second education initiative rooted at the school board level pertains to the graduation rate.
It is obvious to me the root of the graduation problem doesn't lie in our classrooms. If you have student is accepting of a lesson and the parents carea about their child's education, that child will get a good education in Pickens County schools.
The graduation problem, for the most part, is rooted in the ills of society, which, unfortunately, are getting worse each year. The district can't control that decline, but it is being paid to manage it.
To that end, after setting an 80% goal, the board challenged the administration to come up with initial strategies to get the district moving down the path toward the goal.
The administration came up with four initial strategies that are being implemented now. This first wave of strategies stress reading -- students who read at grade level are unlikely to drop out, and targeting elementary students at-risk of later falling off the graduation path.
The district has restored all 4K classes -- get the children starting to read early. It is unfortunate; some parents donít take the time to read with their pre-schoolers. In total 340 4K students are being served in 2012-13.
Reading Interventionists (RI) are teachers who teach students to improve their reading skills and habits. The RIís work one-on-one and with small groups of elementary school students -- very personalized. The district added more RIís and they will be 500 to 750 students this year.
At the neediest elementary schools, 12 ignite classes were added. These classes contain 12 students most at-risk of later falling off the graduation path. These classes are serving 144 at-risk students this year.
Four graduation coaches have been hired, one to cover the middle and high school in each of the four areas of the county. The coaches will work with 200 students who have fallen off the graduation path, to help them with the transition from middle to high school and get them over major hurdles like passing the high school exit exam.
Graduation Rate Looking Forward:
That is just the first wave of initiatives to combat the low graduation rate. Looking ahead, the board has asked the district to begin assessing the effectiveness of each of the initial strategies and also come up with additional strategies to be implemented in 2013-14.
We expect to have these discussions in a few months.
Personally, my hope is all this will result in a systemic approach from 4K to 12th grade that addresses the graduation rate issue and uses strategies not only in the academic field, but also from the social/ psychological and even economic disciplines.