Jasper County school board and community members came to Superintendent Vashti Washington's defense Monday, claiming those calling for her ouster after the release of lowest-in-the-state test scores for the district are being influenced by "bad data."
"Ousting the superintendent ... will not resolve the issues," said Hardeeville resident Richie Reed, a retired Jasper County school administrator.
"... (We) must recall that the children, faculty, staff and administration worked in a warring county, wreaked in an atmosphere of turmoil and negativity," she said before a standing-room-only crowd at Monday's school board meeting. "The superintendent has been subjected to a hostile working environment."
School board chairwoman Berty Riley also came to Washington's aid, arguing that a new state grading system uses calculations that paint a misleading portrait of the district, its students and Washington's efforts.
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The grades "painted a bleak picture of the progress of our children. ... Many do not understand that there is so much work behind the scenes to create a culture of learning and there is other data to consider when looking at the 'big picture,'" Riley said in the meeting.
She also contends that last school year was a "stellar year" for Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, despite the school's failure to bring its graduation rate up to a federal benchmark of 74.1 percent. The rate fell from 72.9 percent in 2011 to 65.2 percent in 2012.
Fewer students also passed high school exit exams from 2012 to 2013, according to state data.
Riley, though, claims 135 of 160 seniors at Ridgeland-Hardeeville received state diplomas. Twelve received state certificates and nine received special-education certificates from Jasper County.
Fifty of the graduates will attend four-year colleges, 29 will attend two-year colleges, 12 signed on with the military and "20 have good-paying jobs," she said.
"The good news continues," she said, echoing Washington in arguing that the letter grades contradict other measures of progress made by students in the district and around the state.
Like Washington, she said parents need to get more involved in their children's education.
"I will say that the district has improved the learning environment in schools and its climate," Riley said. " ... I realize that academically, we have a long way to go, but it is not a secret -- educating children in small, rural communities and providing them with a quality education takes time, hard work, effective teachers, strong leadership and a community that supports public education."
About 50 people gathered at a rally Aug. 17 in Ridgeland to demand accountability and Washington's resignation.
The rally was organized not long after the department released the district's scores for the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards and the High School Assessment Program on Aug. 1. Those tests are used to help determine the district and school letter grades on federal accountability standards.
Jasper County scored 27.3 on a 100-point scale. That score is down from 39.5 points in 2012 and is the lowest in the state.
District finance director Gary West said Monday the district will appeal the "F" grade by a Friday deadline set by the state.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom