St. Helena school board candidates campaign for tangible results

October 11, 2010 

During the past two years, the Beaufort County School District has dedicated extra time and money to improving student achievement at St. Helena Elementary School.

It used federal stimulus money to extend the school year.

It offered incentives to experienced, master teachers willing to transfer to the school.

And it introduced a project-based curriculum with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

Now, the two candidates seeking to represent St. Helena on the Beaufort County Board of Education want to see evidence these efforts are paying off.

Faye Alston, who has two children in county schools, is challenging Michael Rivers, who has served 12 years on the board, in the Nov. 2 election to represent District 5, one of the most rural and diverse areas of the county.

Alston said she believes the district is "on the right road" to improving achievement at one of the county's highest-poverty schools but wants to see a comprehensive evaluation of the changes.

"Some people say it's working, some say it isn't," Alston said. "Is there anything you can viably touch and say, 'This has been working?' "

Alston said the district should look beyond scores on state-mandated tests and survey parents, teachers and community members. She wants an open report that explains whether the school is succeeding.

"I like plain language, so people understand, 'This is what the school board's goal is, this is how we're going to get there and this is how much money it will take to get there,' " she said. "We just want to know."

St. Helena has a long history of poor performance on state-required tests in the county. Yet it's made some progress on state-mandated tests in recent years, making Adequate Yearly Progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.

Rivers isn't sure that improvement can be attributed to the district's recent changes because many weren't in place until the 2009-10 school year. The board needs definitive answers before the stimulus money runs out because the board must decide if it should continue to fund the new programs from other sources.

Rivers also isn't convinced the district's decision to pay "master teachers" an $8,500 annual bonus to transfer to St. Helena from other county schools has helped. District employees had to apply for the master teacher positions.

Rivers believes many teachers who have taught for years at St. Helena are just as effective as those with the master teacher designation and deserve the higher pay. He wants an analysis of master teachers' effectiveness.

"As of right now, I don't see a correlation between the teachers moving to receive the bonus and student achievement," he said.

FAYE ALSTON

Alston, who has lived on St. Helena for 10 years and is chief operating officer of Coastal Vision Cares, said the school board needs to communicate better with the public and foster more parental involvement.

"I think a lot of people are looking for a change and want someone who will be willing to be out in community and talking to folks about what their needs are," she said.

Alston, a mother of four, has two children who are still in county schools. She has been an officer on school improvement councils and parent-teacher organizations at both Lady's Island and St. Helena elementary schools and wants more parents to be active in those organizations.

She said communication from the district has been limited in the past, citing the firing of former St. Helena Elementary School Principal LaVerne Davis in 2004. Hundreds of residents participated in protests and demanded that Davis be reinstated.

"The community felt they weren't involved in the decision-making," she said. "I really, really want to have open forums at each of the schools these kids attend."

Alston said she also would take a hard look at the district's budget to see if the board is making the best of the funding the district has. She wants to compare administrative costs to the amount of money funneled directly to classrooms.

MICHAEL RIVERS

Rivers grew up on St. Helena Island, and the U.S. Air Force veteran returned in 1986 after working with Scientific Atlanta as an engineering technician. He was first elected to the school board in 1998.

Rivers said his experience means he already has a sense of what has been done to improve schools and what still must be done. He said he knows what promises have been made and can gauge whether the district is following through.

"You learn to hold people accountable," he said.

Rivers said he doesn't shy from controversy and his sometimes-contentious views should not be considered negative. In 2008, he spoke against a district plan to restructure middle and elementary schools on Lady's and St. Helena islands. He suggested the district might have been motivated to keep students at St. Helena Elementary until seventh grade because of their race.

"If everybody is always agreeing, then somebody's not thinking," Rivers said. "We learn from discussion."

Rivers said expanding Spanish language programs in local schools would be a top priority in his next term. All elementary students should study Spanish, he said.

"It's obvious that in the job market in years to come, those who are bilingual will have more opportunities," he said.

Rivers also wants to urge local legislators to remedy what he called the "negative effects of Act 388." He said the property tax reform has drained funding from local schools.

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