SC schools chief talks reading, parental involvement with St. Helena staff

rheaton@islandpacket.comOctober 17, 2012 

St. Helena Elementary School's staff got to talk reading and arithmetic with the state superintendent Wednesday.

Mick Zais took a brief tour of the school and talked with principal Kay Keeler and other staff members about the challenges at the school, which received an F on its progress toward federal accountability ratings.

Zais also toured Beaufort Elementary, Beaufort High School and Whale Branch Middle schools Wednesday.

St. Helena Elementary staff told Zais their students struggle most with reading and math.

The school is trying to remedy the problem by spending more time on those subjects during the school day, hiring "interventionists" to help students and using more books about topics that interest students.

Zais said personal experience taught him the importance of the high-interest books. As a child, he struggled with dyslexia and learned to read with comic books, he said.

He also talked about an alternative to a summer-reading program he had seen in another school district. Instead of a grant-funded program that cost about $1,200 per student, the district allowed students to pick 10 books they would own. That ensured the students would be interested in them and made it more likely they would read them, Zais said.

The kids made as much progress as those in the more expensive program, he said.

"Kids read when it's what they're interested in," Zais said.

School staff also discussed with Zais how they involve parents in the classroom. Parent participation has increased this year, they said, and at events like parent nights, families can make games or other study aids to use with their children.

Adriane Johnson, an instructional coach at the school, said one of the challenges the school faces is explaining to some parents that their students aren't performing on grade level.

They've also struggled to explain to the community the meaning of the school's recent F rating -- its measure of progress toward federal accountability standards -- Johnson said.

St. Helena is among 14 state schools with high poverty levels that earned the failing grade, according to charts Zais showed the staff. However, 13 schools in the state with more than 95 percent of students from poor families earned A's. "The difference is not demographics or level of parent education," he said. "It's the effectiveness of the superintendent and principals."

Overall, he said, the school district as a whole is on track, and has made good gains in recent years.

"It's on an upward trajectory, but there's certainly room for growth," he said.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

SC schools chief Zais: District on track, progress still to be made; May 7, 2012

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