School that needs it finally shows progress

Good news from Whale Branch Elementary School has been scarce for years.

When it failed to meet state-mandated performance goals for five consecutive years, it became the first school in Beaufort County to be targeted for special oversight from Columbia to avoid a state takeover. In 2009, Whale Branch Elementary was declared a Palmetto Priority School. It joined a group of schools the state said "share several general challenges: a high poverty population, excessively high leader and teacher turnover rates, and a history of underachievement in the school, and consequently the community."

Whale Branch Elementary was infused with new attention from the state and the Beaufort County School District.

School performance on the state test that measures student achievement moved up a notch that year. Whale Branch moved up from the "at-risk" designation to the "below average" designation. And the school met the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the state Department of Education had removed Whale Branch Elementary from the Palmetto Priority Schools program, due to its academic progress.

That would seem to be good news, and in many ways, it is. We as a community wanted to see progress, and we did .

But it is not good news to be dropped from a program that was to pump $1.5 million into the school over three years. For two school years, Whale Branch Elementary got extra money from the state, including about $500,000 for the 2010-2011 school year. Principal Don Doggett said that money now goes away.

With the special funding, the school was able to reduce class size, hire tutors and offer special, targeted assistance to students before school, after school and on Saturdays. The key component was being able to offer transportation for the after-school and Saturday tutoring, Doggett said.

The state should stay with Whale Branch another year. Theschool clearly could benefit from more special assistance. The battle is not over by any means.

But Doggett remains optimistic.

"The beauty is that the staff we have remains committed," he said. "I am not having to rehire 25 new teachers this year."

Doggett says that through the support of Superintendent Valerie Truesdale, the school was able to hire the brightest and best faculty, who embrace the challenges. Some can qualify for performance-based incentive pay through a private foundation.

Much change has taken place, and many new tactics will remain as the school seeks to rise above the "below average" designation. Its students will continue to have an extra 20 days of instruction in the school year. The rigor, individual attention and "best practices" the faculty concentrates on will remain. So will the school district faculty coaches in literacy, mathematics and technology.

Also, the effort to reach children of the rural, northern reaches of Beaufort County at an earlier age will continue. In conjunction with Head Start, the school district offers class in the Dale community for 3-year-olds and takes in infants as young as 6 weeks old. Doggett says that is making a big difference.

To lose the extra state support is disheartening in a way, the principal said. "It is bittersweet, but I'll take it. It means our students are doing well."

Whale Branch Elementary is nowhere near the finish line. But it has indeed produced some good news. If that means less state money at the same time the local school district budget is squeezed, it's just one more challenge that must be met. At least now, the school has something positive to build upon.