Whale Branch Middle School deserves both congratulations and careful study after winning a $50,000 national award for its professional development of teachers.
The Teacher Advancement Program Founder's Award was presented March 9 in a surprise announcement at TAP's conference in Los Angeles.
We've often said -- and still maintain -- that engaged parenting is the most critical factor in a child's intellectual development. But it takes competent and committed teachers to build on what a healthy home life makes possible.
The academic progress at Whale Branch Middle -- which serves a largely minority, largely poor community and once was considered an academic backwater -- demonstrates the benefit of skilled teachers. TAP combines teacher collaboration and mentoring with regular evaluations and continuing teacher education. The Beaufort County School District, using federal money as a lure, has offered incentive bonuses to teachers who produce measurable results at Whale Branch Middle and 14 other TAP schools.
The criteria for the Founder's Award were full and proficient implementation of TAP; recognition as a center of best practices; and student achievement.
Indeed, even before the award was presented, district officials credited the program with improving student achievement.
Still, it should be noted that the TAP program has been in place since 2004, and as recently as 2008, Whale Branch Middle was still categorized as "at-risk" in its state report card rating. Its improvement to "below average" the next year coincided with the state's decision to jettison its standardized Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test -- a key factor in report-card grades -- with the Palmetto Achievement of State Standards, which many agree is less rigorous. In fact, all six of the disrict's middle schools improved their performance that year.
But the improvement also coincided with a turn-around effort that included a new principal at Whale Branch, extending the school year and fully implementing TAP. Since then, it has improved to "average" on its 2011 state report card.
In addition, Whale Branch Middle was one of four district TAP schools where single-year student gains were larger than would normally be expected at a school of similar size and demographics, the state TAP director told the Board of Education this past November. In all, teachers at eight of the district's 15 TAP schools were eligible for bonuses based on PASS scores.
The results were considered so encouraging that the national foundation that started TAP, the Milken Family Foundation, planned a visit to learn why it works so well here. School representatives from around the state and nation also have come to observe, according to district spokesman Jim Foster.
District officials contend success is a result of adherence to TAP's mandates, which includes data-driven decisions on how best to educate students.
Superintendent Valerie Truesdale has suggested the district expand the program to other schools. Indeed, it would be interesting to see how TAP translates to older students (Battery Creek is the district's only TAP high school) and students from more affluent communities attending schools that already have a record of above-average achievement.
Regardless of what might happen elsewhere, the TAP program already has accomplished something important at Whale Branch Middle and similar schools districtwide: It is replacing excuses for under-performance with opportunities for progress.
Much remains to be achieved, but the inertia that once made Whale Branch Middle an academic backwater has been broken.