St. Helena official: Expect improvement, not miracles at elementary school

St. Helena Elementary School, the only school in Beaufort County that received an "F" last year when schools were rated on their progress toward meeting federal academic goals, has made modest gains.

But school officials -- while heartened by St. Helena Elementary's progress -- acknowledge that much more needs to be done to lift the school, where almost all students come from families struggling with poverty.

School and community officials have worked since the fall to pull the school up from the failing rating it received in August on federal accountability standards.

"The children are showing progress and mastery of skills on formative assessments ... based on in-house data and MAP test scores we anticipate moving up the rating," principal Kay Keeler wrote in an email last week.

Students posted stronger gains in math and reading from fall to winter on Measures of Academic Performance results, compared to the same period last year, according to district chief of instructional services Dereck Rhoads.

However, they still lag behind peers across the district.

The MAP test is given to Beaufort County public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade at the start, middle and end of each school year. The test measures reading and math skills and is used to help teachers identify students' weaknesses and tailor instruction to address them.

Improved performance on the MAP test, though, does not necessarily translate to improved performance on Palmetto Assessment of State Standards exams that figure more prominently in federal standards, Rhoads said.

More St. Helena Elementary students were on grade level in math and reading for most grades this winter compared to last, but overall percentages still remain low compared to other county schools. Some grades slipped.

Nonetheless, district and community members say the school is making progress and say they are encouraged by the improvement at a school where 97 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a commonly accepted measure of poverty.

"The light has been turned on at the school," interim superintendent Jackie Rosswurm said. "... and all indicators are we will be cheering come the fall."

Faye Patrick Alston, chairwoman of St. Helena Elementary's School Improvement Council, is more measured.

"There won't be a miracle in one year, but there is going to be an improvement," Alston said. "And, in the long term, I would say by the end of next year we'll see the most substantial gains."

The "F" galvanized the community, prompting 100 people to turn out for a community meeting in late August. That led to a 14-point plan to turnaround the school. It included:

  • Capping class sizes to 20 students by adding two teachers.
  • Hiring a dean of students to address discipline problems.
  • Offering more pre-kindergarten classes.
  • Partnering with United Way of the Lowcountry and other groups to provide after-school tutoring.
  • Adding a "math interventionist" and encouraging all students to attend extra school days for math instruction.
  • Although those efforts have produced only modest gains so far, changes aimed at bolstering discipline and parental involvement have been more successful, according to Alston and Rosswurm.

    "The school is much calmer," Alston said. "And there have been a great deal of community programs for families and turnouts have been great -- with more than 250 families attending some of the events," from workshops on providing homework help to parenting classes and school tours.

    Keeler told her staff recently that she will retire at the end of the school year and is confident teachers, staff and district officials can continue making gains in her absence.

    Alston, too, believes progress can be maintained, so long as the district chooses an in-house successor -- someone who knows the community, is familiar to students and parents and comfortable with the changes that have taken place at the school.

    Rosswurm said the district will look for a replacement who understands the need for all students to be successful at high levels and has been successful working with similar student bodies.

    "Kay has established a strong team at the school, with a strong teaching core," Rosswurm said. "Certainly, it's not easy to replace a person ... but (we) will work with the community and staff to find a replacement whom we hope will be successful."

    School board member Michael Rivers, who represents St. Helena Island, said the improvement in MAP testing seems promising, "but the proof in the pudding will be when we get PASS scores."

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    Related content:

    District revises St. Helena Elementary plan to include focus on math: Oct. 3, 2012

    Plans to boost St. Helena Elementary's performance take shape: Sept. 29, 2012

    St. Helena community rallies for change at elementary school: Sept. 9, 2012

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