Beaufort News

Departing superintendent touts student achievement; data suggest more gains to be had

Valerie Truesdale
Valerie Truesdale

After every goodbye last week, there seems to be another one for Beaufort County School District superintendent Valerie Truesdale.

A farewell from the Board of Education was followed by a reception Thursday that included several county officials. She has had her final meetings with the district's Teacher Forum and with principals. She says people have greeted her at church and in public to bid adieu.

"I keep saying if there was a way I had known people were going to say so many nice things, I wouldn't have decided to leave," she said.

Truesdale's tenure, which began in 2007, ends Friday; she starts a new job as chief information officer for technology of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) School District on Oct. 1.

She counts student achievement gains among her proudest accomplishments -- indeed, scores on standardized tests improved consistently during her tenure.

For example, the number of elementary and middle school students meeting state standards on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards has increased each year since the test was first given in 2009. Also, the number of schools receiving state recognition for closing achievement gaps has increased from three schools to 27 since 2006.

Those gains and other factors boosted state report-card ratings of the district and its schools -- 93 percent of the district's schools rated "average" or better on 2011 report cards.

However, the improvement isn't quite so stark relative to other, similar districts, according to data from the S.C. State Department of Education. As report card measurements and reporting methods have been tweaked in recent years, other districts have improved their ratings, too.

For example, in 2008, just two districts deemed by the state to be similar to Beaufort County were rated "good," and none were rated "excellent." That year, Beaufort County was among three districts considered "below average."

By 2011, three districts had attained "excellent" ratings, and 10 were rated "good." Beaufort County and seven other districts were rated "average."

"There's no question that every year we got better, the state got better, too," former school board member Joan Deery said.

Truesdale acknowledges as much. She said she had hoped to winnow the percentage of students not meeting state standards on PASS exams to single digits. Some schools have done so, but not enough of them, she said.

Truesdale also said she wishes the district's on-time graduation rate, which has hovered around 70 percent, had increased, and that achievement among disabled students had been more robust.

What's more, the district hasn't consistently posted scores above state averages on the PASS exam -- one of the measures the school board used to evaluate Truesdale. At best, the district exceeded state averages in 11 of 26 subjects in 2011.

Deery said she would like to have seen the district make those gains, but wonders if Truesdale had enough time.

"I've been asking myself -- is five years enough? I think she inherited a district that was so dysfunctional. She had an awful lot to fix," Deery said. "I know she really wanted to (make that goal). She certainly tried."

Truesdale helped start extended learning days. That program provided additional instruction for under-performing students, who attended school sessions while other students were on breaks or out for holidays. There are fewer days in the program this school year, however, because funding for it ran out.

"Schools of choice" -- including Whale Branch Early College High School's partnership with the Technical College of the Lowcountry and Battery Creek High School's aeronautics and military programs -- also expanded during Truesdale's tenure.

She also emphasized professional development. Summer Institute, a multi-day program of teacher workshops, has grown from 120 to more than 950 teachers in the four years it's been in place. Grants have enabled groups of 50 or more teachers to work toward master's degrees.

"I've always believed that if we invest in our teachers, they invest in our kids," Truesdale said. "Every penny we put into professional development allows us to reap tremendous gains."

She said she's confident such programs will lead to continued gains in student achievement."It can take a generation, but success will be institutionalized," she said. "Once we had one school rated excellent (on state report cards), we had more continue to achieve it."

School board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said Truesdale leaves the district in good shape.

"She's got us on the road," he said. "We have gone the right course. Now it's time for someone else to take us to the next level and further down the road."

Related content:

Truesdale accepts NC job, will leave district this fall; July 24, 2012

Beaufort County students continue gains on state assessments; Aug. 2, 2012

Beaufort schools, district continue gains on report cards; Nov. 10, 2011

Beaufort County Council approves tax hike for schools; Aug. 27, 2012

Teachers go to school at district's Summer Institute; June 20, 2012