Whale Branch Elementary makes list of state's poorest-performing schools

April 8, 2009 

Whale Branch Elementary has joined the state's most critical watch list after failing to meet state-mandated performance goals for five consecutive years, the state Department of Education announced Wednesday.

The school already was included Tuesday in a sweeping list of county reforms -- including a longer school day and 20 extra days of class -- for four county schools with long histories of unsatisfactory scores on state tests.

It is the first county school to qualify for the Palmetto Priority Schools project, which was created two years ago by state Superintendent Jim Rex as an alternative to state takeover. Across the state, about 40 schools are on the list.

School administrators have worked for nine months with the state Department of Education to develop a plan that they hope will raise achievement at Whale Branch, St. Helena and James J. Davis elementary schools and Whale Branch Middle School, said Mary Seamon, the district's chief instructional services officer. Davis Elementary will convert to an early learning center.

To entice principals to take a one-year shot at raising test scores, the district dangled a 10 percent salary increase. The principals will be expected to help students make 1.5 years of progress in one year on the Measures of Academic Progress, a state computerized test.

Three principals, each armed with a strategy, were hired by the board Tuesday under a one-year contract.

"We only wanted principals who would buy into the fact they were going to make a 11/2-year growth in student achievement each year they were there, and we needed to make sure they had a plan to do that," Seamon said.

They are:

• Don Doggett, now principal of Davis Elementary, will move to Whale Branch Elementary, as well as oversee the James J. Davis Early Learning Center.

• Kay Keeler, now principal of Port Royal Elementary, will be principal of St. Helena Elementary.

• Mona Lise Dickson will remain principal at Whale Branch Middle School, where she has been for about eight months.

Priscilla Drake, now at St. Helena Elementary, and Mark Mansell at Whale Branch Elementary will be offered other administrative jobs, spokeswoman Carol Bruno said.

Dickson said she welcomes accountability measures and is confident she can meet the goal.

"You can't go into it thinking you're not," she said. "It's a challenge and I love a challenge."

Keeler is leaving Port Royal Elementary after nearly 20 years, six as principal.

"This has happened very, very quickly, but it's something I feel in my heart has been there for a long time," she said. "I am very excited about the prospects and the things that can happen with learning and with the community."

Teachers at the under-performing schools also will be held accountable for achievement and work 210 days instead of the typical 190 days. They will be paid at their full daily rate -- based on education and experience -- for the extra days and a $1,000 bonus.

Seamon said the district human resources department will evaluate which teachers are willing to work the extra days and want to stay at those schools.

Other elements of the plan include expanding services for children as young as 6 weeks to 3 years in the Whale Branch and St. Helena communities by working with Head Start and Beaufort County First Steps. Davis Elementary will be converted into an early learning center, and its students will begin attending Whale Branch Elementary in first grade.

"As we studied our four under-performing schools, what we discovered was more than half of children were being rewarded with As and Bs, yet fewer than half were meeting state standards," Seamon said.

The district has budgeted about $2 million to implement the plan, according to operational services chief Phyllis White.

It will pay for the plan with federal stimulus money earmarked for high-poverty schools and special state revenue, White said. A budget will not be finalized until specific details such as school enrollment, staffing levels, transportation and other factors are worked out, she said.

The school board will get regular progress reports on the four schools, Seamon said.

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