District accountability long overdue for Strive

The Beaufort County School District is moving in the right direction in requiring accountability from the troubled Strive to Excel program and other mentoring programs in the district's schools.

But the timing suggests the effort is less about accountability and more about shoring up the district's credibility.

District officials made little attempt to assure themselves of Strive to Excel's efficacy or its financial integrity until questions were raised by this newspaper.

Their efforts particularly pale when you consider that Strive's president, Tim Singleton, was hired by the district to run its Project Success program during the 2008-2009 school year, with the idea of replicating Strive-like programs at other schools.

Based on what, we ask now.

District officials don't earn points for doing today what they should have done 10 years ago when Strive to Excel began working with students. They have little choice but to get a handle on a program that for too long has operated in our schools with little to no meaningful oversight.

Superintendent Valerie Truesdale reported to the school board Tuesday that Strive would no longer have an office in the high school as of Dec. 31, and an arrangement whereby Singleton obtained health insurance through the district would end as of that date, too.

That seemingly firm stance was weakened by news that some consideration, even if brief, was given to allowing Strive to be housed in a portable classroom at Hilton Head Island Middle School. Parents who objected to that idea were right. Either the district is going to gain some objective distance from this program or it isn't. It must if its accountability requirements are to be taken seriously.

After Strive's financial issues came to light late last month, we said the community, which has helped Strive through district support and direct and indirect financial support, was owed:

  • An independent audit of Strive's finances.
  • A new board capable of making decisions in the best interests of the organization, not its president.
  • An accounting of the program's viability in achieving its stated mission to improve self-esteem, provide academic enrichment and prepare participants for post-secondary education and careers.
  • A new board has been formed, but it will have to prove it can provide independent, objective oversight for Singleton and the program. Singleton's role in helping to recruit board members, given the free rein he has enjoyed for the past several years, including writing his own paychecks, raises doubts about whether the board will do what is necessary to restore public confidence. We hope the new members erase those doubts.

    Board member Tom Gardo has pledged an independent audit will be done to give the group a clean slate on which to work going forward, but has not promised to release the full results. The board should do so or doubts will remain.

    The district has begun assessing the program, starting with a survey of 170 students participating in mentoring programs at high schools and middle schools; 128 of the students participate in Strive at Hilton Head High or Hilton Head Middle schools.

    The results overall were positive, but the student survey is a subjective, limited assessment of the program, and the district recognizes that. Sean Alford, the district's chief of instructional services, says the district also plans to examine student grades and survey parents. It doesn't plan now to survey teachers, but it should. They could help provide an objective assessment of Strive's impact on students.

    Truesdale reported to the school board that Strive will have to demonstrate each year that it is accomplishing its mission. That annual accounting is to include results of parent and student surveys; monitoring students' academic progress; and the number of seniors accepted into college. Strive also will be required to report to the district on its financial status, according to a memorandum of agreement.

    The district should not rely solely on Strive for that information.

    All of this is the least the school district can do. For the past decade, it has given this program, which it knew far too little about, an implicit endorsement that encouraged the community to support it.