By 2018, students across South Carolina who are struggling to read at the end of third grade will be held back so they can get help.
The measure is part of a new law Gov. Nikki Haley signed Wednesday called the Read to Succeed Act. It aims to boost reading levels across the state and increase students' chances of graduating from high school.
Were the law in effect today, the Beaufort County School District would have held back more than 60 third-graders this year, according to chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads.
While he and other district officials agree with the law's goals, they are troubled by the means used to achieve them.
"When we hold students back, we think a couple months or another year is going to fix the issue," he said. "We have got to start younger because the research is clear: Retention by itself has not shown positive results."
Retention of third-graders would begin with the end of the 2017-18 school year, under the law sponsored by Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island.
A growing number of states are considering or have adopted policies that require struggling students to be held back, according to a February 2013 study by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The study said "a large (body of) literature confirms that retained students achieve at lower levels, complete fewer years of school, and have worse social-emotional outcomes than observably similar students who are promoted."
To get students reading on grade level by third grade and increase their chances for continued success, Rhoads said the district must start working with struggling students much earlier.
So that's what Beaufort County is doing, superintendent Jeff Moss has said.
One way it hopes to reach students earlier is by expanding pre-kindergarten instruction. The Beaufort County Board of Education recently approved spending an additional $500,000 to make all current half-day pre-kindergarten classes full day.
The district serves about 850 pre-kindergarten students, only half of the county's eligible 4-year-olds, according to Moss. It hopes to continue expanding its program over the next several years until all county children can be included.
Many aspects of Read to Succeed emphasize the importance of pre-kindergarten in helping students enter elementary school prepared. However, no state or federal law requires districts to provide public pre-kindergarten.
The new state law also requires reading camps for rising fourth-graders who are not reading on grade level. The school district just completed its first week of the six-week camps, and Rhoads said it had near perfect attendance.
While only those "at-risk" third-graders are required to attend, the district expanded its camp to include students in kindergarten, first and second grades who are struggling. There are about 25 students from each of the district's more than 15 elementary schools at the camps, he said.
The state provided about $37,000 for the camps, according to chief operational services officer Phyllis White. However, the camps will cost the district about $300,000, she said.
The district also is forming a literacy plan and has had literacy coaches in schools -- both measures are also required by Read to Succeed.
"Beaufort County is well-suited and equipped to implement the requirements of this new legislation because we have already been working on these things," Rhoads said.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.