I began my career as an English and Social Studies teacher in Simonton Middle and C.A. Brown High Schools, two mostly low income and all-black schools in Charleston. The students I taught were not all that different from students in the Jasper County school system today where eighty-six percent of the students in the county-wide district are minorities - 62 percent black and 24 percent Latino.
The poverty rate for students in Jasper County schools is also 86 percent. The per capita family income in the entire county is just under $18,000, well below the government-designated poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four. This is very troubling because it is very well established that the number one predictor of classroom achievement is family income.
A recent study by Harvard and University of California at Berkeley economists found that children born to lower-income parents in the South have greater challenges of getting ahead financially. In fact, those children raised in families that make $27,000 or less only have a five percent chance of earning $100,000 by the time they reach the age of 45, which is half the chance of similar children in low-income communities outside of the South.
Students' chances for achieving better lives than their parents hinge on their opportunities to get a good education. And there is significant evidence that middle school is the critical point at which to engage students and enhance their chances of graduating high school. A 2007 report by researchers at John's Hopkins University found that in high-poverty schools having one of any "four factors -- poor attendance, receiving a poor final behavior grade, or failing math, or failing English in sixth grade -- could identify 60 percent of the students who would ultimately fail to graduate from the school district."
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Yet when we see school districts that underperform due to the challenges of their demographics, the response is too often knee-jerk and folks start looking for a scapegoat. Jasper County School Superintendent Vashti Washington is facing that kind of opposition.
Dr. Washington is not responsible for the socio-economic hand Jasper County students have been dealt. But she is working to find innovative ways to incentivize her students and hopefully get their parents more involved in their efforts. One such innovation was the manner in which she consolidated the district's middle schools. Another innovation is a School Letter Program for achievements in academics and the arts, which -- as far as I have been able to determine -- is the first such effort in our state. I am pleased to partner with her to launch the program, and am hopeful that if it is successful the school district will find ways and means to maintain it.
The James E. Clyburn Scholarship and Research Foundation will underwrite the cost of providing school letters and pins to students at Hardeeville-Ridgeland Middle School who meet certain criteria that are established by the school. Students will be awarded letters and pins for certain levels of achievements in the classroom, on PASS tests, and in other extra-curricular activities, just as many schools do for athletics. These letters and pins are intended to set up healthy competition among students and to recognize and incentive their achievements and performances.
I appreciate Superintendent Washington's vision for implementing this program at Hardeeville-Ridgeland Middle School, where nearly 88 percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunches which is indicative of the poverty level. It will take creative approaches and a focus on addressing the root causes of the challenges facing our young students to bring about meaningful and sustainable changes and successes.
Looking for scapegoats and misplacing blame may provide temporary gratification for some, but improving student outcomes will require the support and cooperation of the entire community.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., represents the 6th Congressional District.