Community must know what school's 'F' means

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 16, 2012 

St. Helena Island Elementary School needs help, as its recent "F" on a state report card indicates.

The first assignment is to face reality and check the denial at the door.

The school has struggled for years in standardized test scores, but the "F" that only 10 percent of South Carolina schools earned has hit a raw nerve.

If it leads to more passion about the school, and more parental and community involvement, that's good.

But if all it leads to is throwing the principal under the bus, nothing will be gained because the issues are much deeper than any principal or faculty can fix.

Beaufort County leaders in the schools and communities need to embrace that reality.

It is a fact that 97 percent of St. Helena Elementary students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a reflection of low income in their homes.

Yet Michael Rivers, who represents St. Helena Island on the Beaufort County Board of Education, doesn't think that matters.

"I take it a little bit personal because they make it seem like with kids from St. Helena that poverty or crime is why they can't learn," said Rivers. "That's garbage."

He said it frustrates him "because it seems to be an excuse legitimizing why teachers and the administration are not succeeding."

He's right that it should not be an excuse. But it is nevertheless a fact of life, and the economic well-being of a child's home has a direct impact on achievement at school.

The report card should not be seen as the ailment. The report card is the symptom. And overcoming the educational challenges faced by disadvantaged children is not exclusively a St. Helena issue. Schools elsewhere in the county, state, nation and world are similarly challenged. Crime is not unique to St. Helena. Crime cannot get any more outrageous than the Sept. 1 shootout on Hilton Head Island that cost an innocent 8-year-old boy his life.

Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, produced a paper last year entitled, "Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence."

She concludes that policy must go deeper than simply testing and labeling schools, and somehow thinking that will make them all come out above-average. Ladd notes from the outset that 55 years of research shows an achievement gap based on household income and other socioeconomic factors.

And the size of that gap has more than doubled over recent decades.

As Ladd's report says: "Suffice it to say at this point that research documents a variety of symptoms of low (family socioeconomic status) that are relevant for children's subsequent educational outcomes. These include, for example, poor health, limited access to home environments with rich language and experiences, low birth weight, limited access to high quality pre-school opportunities, less participation in many activities in the summer and after school that middle class families take for granted, and more movement in and out of schools because of the way the housing market operates for low income families."

This year, class size at St. Helena Elementary has been capped at 20, and the school district is seeking more tutoring and after-school time for students. It admitted it messed up by letting budget cuts take a deep toll on a school that needed extra help. And somehow, someone let a transportation problem cut 25 minutes from the instructional day at St. Helena Elementary.

The school district must do more to help St. Helena Elementary climb out of the "F" category. But the community must accept that offsetting the effects of poverty is a job bigger than the school.

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