The hand dealt educators in Jasper County is no doubt a tough one.
As its superintendent is quick to point out, a vast majority of its children come from families living in poverty. Its public schools have a long history of struggling to educate their students. It is among the "Corridor of Shame" school districts along Interstate 95 in South Carolina that sued the state over inadequate funding -- and rightfully so.
The district is under fire now for back-to-back failing grades under new federal accountability standards. Jasper County schools earned a score of 27.3 on a 100-point scale, the lowest in the state, for the 2012-13 school year, down from 39.5 in 2011-2012. A score of 60 or below is failing.
Beaufort County earned a "B" with a score of 85. Statewide, 77 percent of school districts and 76 percent of schools met the state's expectation of a grade of "C" or better.
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The Jasper County district is appealing its "F," maintaining that the state didn't take into account when measuring improvements fromyear to the next the consolidation of two middle schools and two high schools between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years and failed to account for the 417 students who left the district for a new state-run charter school.
But even if the district gets that "F" raised to a higher grade by changing the groups of students compared from one year to the next and recalculating some other factors, it doesn't change the fact that most Jasper County students, across grades and subjects, scored poorly on the tests devised to measure what they are learning. In 26 of 30 subject categories by grade, fewer than half the students earned passing scores. Three of the four categories with a majority passing were barely above 50 percent. Only one was above 60 percent.
At an Aug. 17 rally, superintendent Vashti Washington was roundly criticized for the schools' performance. People at the rally pounced on her statements that the scores "have no meaning" and that the school district puts "no stock in (test score) calculations or the resulting letter grades and will spend very little time talking about those." Some are calling for her to go.
What she means by those statements isn't clear, but they are hard to reconcile with the reality of what those scores say about whether Jasper County students are learning what they are expected to learn.
Still, her leaving the district won't magically change those results. The district has had a stream of superintendents coming and going, with little to show for the turnover.
Much more than changing superintendents must be done. State education funding must be revamped; volunteers, like the many from Sun City Hilton Head already helping, must come into the schools; parents must make sure their children are prepared for school and committed to succeeding. Poverty doesn't have to be the determining factor of their future if they have the will to succeed in school and they get the help they need to do it.
There is a silver lining to the cloud of criticism hanging over the Jasper County district. The energy and engagement found in those who rallied Aug. 17 and in those who defend Washington and the district can make a difference. If that energy can be harnessed and turned into positive action for the children of Jasper County, their performance could reach a level we can all celebrate. But the excuses for poor performances also must stop. These scores do have meaning.
And if the rating system, driven by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is a problem, that same energy should be turned toward fixing that. The current system is a result of intense criticism of the previous all-or-nothing methodology that resulted in a district's failing to make adequate progress if even one subgroup of students failed to meet the required targets. We must continue to seek the best methods and measures to make sure our children get the education they need.
Pointing fingers isn't enough. Jasper County's children need a helping hand.