When Kent Riddle started teaching kindergarten at Angel Oak Elementary School in 2002, he knew some of his students already had a lot of catching up to do, even at age 5.

“I had so many kids that didn’t know any letters or numbers,” Riddle says. But rather than blame the parents or pre-kindergarten teachers, he took matters into his own hands. He asked the principal of the Johns Island school to assign him to a “loop,” an arrangement in which he teaches an intervention pre-K class every other year and then follows the students to teach their kindergarten class the following year.

Charleston County schools are shooting for major improvements over the next five years, and if they succeed, it will be at the hands of people like Riddle. After the 2010-2011 school year, for the first time in its history, the school district received a Good rating on its report card from the S.C. Department of Education, along with an Excellent rating for growth. Nancy McGinley, the district superintendent, has a plan to build on that success, and it begins with the youngest students — ones like Riddle’s.

The plan is called Charleston Achieving Excellence: Vision 2016, a bland institutional name for a gutsy set of performance goals. McGinley wants to see the district as a whole make the following gains by 2016:

• 81 percent of students graduating on time (the current rate is 72 percent)

• 82 percent of eighth graders passing the math section of the standardized PASS test (the current rate is 69 percent)

• 85 percent of eighth graders passing the English/language arts section of the PASS test (the current rate is 70 percent)

• 93 percent of third graders passing the math section of the PASS test (the current rate is 70 percent)

• 98 percent of third graders passing the English/language arts section of the PASS test (the current rate is 80 percent)

It’s a task made all the more daunting by the district’s insistence on breaking down the goals by race in an attempt to close a persistent achievement gap. On the third-grade English/language arts test, for instance, the district only wants to increase the passing rate among white students from 94.5 percent in 2011 to 98 percent in 2016. Among African-American students, the 2011 passing rate was 66 percent, but the goal is still 98 percent.

The grim reality in the district is that graduation rates and test scores are lowest for minorities and students from low-income households. The same is true in many other districts, but in Charleston’s case, McGinley sees the divide as a “tale of two cities.” The four-year graduation rate for the district is 72 percent overall, but it is 60 percent for African-Americans and 50 percent for Hispanics. In 2010, just 58 percent of students who received subsidized lunches graduated on time.

McGinley acknowledges that the district has placed a tough demand on teachers in struggling schools, but she insists that it’s not an impossible task.

In 2007, one in five incoming freshmen in the district could not read at a fourth-grade level. In 2009, Post and Courier education reporter Diette Courrégé wrote a devastating series of articles explaining the ways in which the district had failed students and produced illiterate adults. McGinley, then in her second year as superintendent, knew how grim the situation looked.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to die on the literacy hill,’ ” McGinley says.

She is now in her fifth year as superintendent, and the once-damning freshman literacy figure improved to about one in eight by 2011. What happened in the meantime was a shift in priorities. The school board declared literacy its No. 1 priority at a January 2010 board meeting, and students who missed the mark on literacy were required to attend specialized academies within their schools in the first, third, and sixth grades. At a recent public input meeting in Mt. Pleasant, parents said they favored expansion of the third-grade literacy academies.

Riddle, who is also the chairman of the non-union advocacy group Charleston Teacher Alliance, says he respects the district’s high hopes, but he likens the plan to setting a weight-loss goal without knowing how quickly the body can actually shed fat.

“I’m not sure that kind of growth has ever happened before,” Riddle says. “When we asked the [school] board if this had ever been done before, they didn’t know.”

How not to teach to the test

The easiest critique of Vision 2016 is that it could encourage “teaching to the test,” the bane of the standardized-test era in American education. After all, four of its five goals are based on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS), the diagnostic multiple-choice-plus-essay examination that South Carolina schools have been administering to students in grades 3-8 since 2009.

At the first public input meeting about Vision 2016, held in the Wando High School cafeteria Jan. 9, one of the most common complaints among parents was that students were being over-tested, both in terms of standardized tests and classroom assessments. “Teachers spend so much time giving grades,” complained one mother, “I don’t know how they have time to teach.”

Even before students begin taking the PASS in third grade, they are well-acquainted with testing. When they are four years old, they take the DIAL-3, a test that requires them to draw shapes, write their names, and perform motor skills like hopping on one foot and touching their thumbs to their fingers sequentially. Results from the test are part of a formula that the district uses to place children in remedial pre-K classes like Kent Riddle’s.

The most prominent example of standards-based education reform in America is No Child Left Behind, the heavily criticized 2001 law requiring states to set goals based on standardized tests in order to receive federal funding. Teachers have made their judgments by now, and Riddle is not a fan. It has recast schools as “test-prep centers,” he says. “Instead of working on higher levels of thinking, we’re working on these packets made by testing companies.”

The district is still hashing out its plan to meet the Vision 2016 goals, but it would do well to avoid the pitfalls of No Child Left Behind. Chris Fraser, Charleston County school board chairman, insists that Vision 2016 is not about teaching to the test. “It’s about raising understanding and critical-thinking skills so they perform better on the test,” Fraser says. “We’re not teaching the answers. We’re trying to elevate the students and teach them so they perform better.”

Besides, he adds, “You’ve got to have some way of measuring student achievement, and the only way I know of is testing.”

A tale of two districts

At a certain level, Vision 2016 could be about hiring and firing.

“If we have a principal who’s been in a school for four or five years and that school is not moving, then we need to look more closely at what’s going on there,” McGinley says. “Is it something he or she is not doing and needs support, or are there other issues?”

At first blush, performance-based management can seem like a brutal way to run a school district. But McGinley insists that it won’t be so cut-and-dry that a teacher who is working with a rowdy class in a high-poverty area will be punished for sagging test scores. The scores will become a factor in teacher assessments, though.

“I have teachers who voluntarily take on the most difficult students because they’re excellent teachers,” McGinley says. “They know they can find the learning spark for these children, and we don’t want to discourage that.”

One December afternoon, McGinley paid a visit to the staff of Midland Park Primary School, a North Charleston school for students from Early Head Start through the first grade. The teachers sat in kid-sized plastic chairs in the library for a meeting with their boss’ boss.

“If you only remember one thing, remember this: 50 percent of students are at Excellent schools in Charleston County,” McGinley told the teachers.

But the fact that many schools scored Excellent on the S.C. Department of Education school report cards for 2011 is cold comfort at Midland Park. The school began operating as a primary school during the current academic year, so it did not receive a 2011 report card, but in its previous incarnation as Midland Park Elementary, it received a Below Average on the 2010 report card.

Midland Park is emblematic of some of the challenges the district faces. About 73 percent of its students come from families whose income qualifies them for free or reduced-price school lunches. Principal Beth McCraw estimates that the student population is 60 to 65 percent Hispanic, and the 2010 report card for the elementary school showed that roughly 40 percent of the students had limited English proficiency, but only about 5 to 10 percent of the teachers are Spanish speakers. Midland Park is fortunate to have a Spanish-speaking receptionist who can address parents, but at other schools — particularly at the northern end of the district and on Johns Island — second-language English teachers sometimes have to leave their classrooms to address non-English-speaking parents in the lobby.

By nearly every metric, African-American and Hispanic students are lagging behind their white counterparts in academic performance. What to do to close the gap? One solution is to hire more teachers who look like them.

Fran Welch, dean of the College of Charleston’s School of Education, Health, and Human Performance, has been keeping tabs on the school district for years, and she has seen black male students dropping out at disproportionate rates. According to national data, test scores of black students who spend a year with a black teacher tend to improve by four percentage points

The College of Charleston has helped the district to actively recruit black male teachers through its Early Childhood Cohort program, which offers tuition assistance to black men seeking a master’s degree in teaching at the college while setting them up to work as teaching assistants in Charleston County schools. CofC has turned out five teachers from the program, but it is funded by federal stimulus money that has run out. Once the economy improves, Welch predicts that baby-boomer teachers who have been delaying retirement will retire, leaving open positions in Charleston County. She hopes to find more funding for the program and have black male graduates ready to fill those jobs by then. Still, she says, a realistic part of the solution for closing the racial gap will be training culturally sensitive white teachers.

“The bulk of our graduating teachers are still young, white females,” Welch says. “It’s our responsibility to let them know that they’re not going to be teaching, for the most part, middle-to-upper-class white females.”

Puppy kindergarten

When Superintendent McGinley adopted a puppy named Buffalo Bill Charleston, she signed him up for puppy kindergarten. Problem was, the classes met on Monday nights when she was busy in school board meetings, so she got a friend — the owner of another dog named Murphy — to take hers to class.

“I love Buffalo Bill Charleston as much as Murphy’s mother loves him,” she says. “But I can’t be a perfect mother.”

McGinley used the story as an allegory for the challenges of single parenting and the equalizing effect of public education while speaking to the Midland Park staff. In her interactions with teachers and principals, she preaches the gospel of never passing the buck.

“I’m asking you to own some decisions and not put the monkey on someone else’s back,” she said earlier the same day in the school district office at a principals’ roundtable meeting. Don’t blame parents, in other words. And don’t blame the district for setting the bar so high.

Kent Riddle is still skeptical.

“If it could be done, why haven’t we been able to do it yet?” he asks. “It’s not like teachers are sitting on their hands waiting for this vision. They’re in the classroom doing what they can.”

The map for achieving Vision 2016 goals is not yet drawn. District officials have been meeting with advisory groups of students, parents, teachers, and principals, but for now all that exists is a starting point and a destination.

During McGinley’s Midland Park meeting, she told success stories from around the district. Stories like the one about two Korean brothers who arrived at ages 6 and 9 knowing only the words “Michael Jackson” in English. They got held back in elementary school, and they went to summer school in high school, but they ultimately graduated. One went on to the Naval Academy; the other is now a pharmacist.

Then there was the story of generational change in McGinley’s own family. Her grandmother did janitorial work in Boston public schools, and McGinley now makes over $200,000 a year as the leader of the second-largest school system in South Carolina.

“Public education is transformative,” she said. “It can transform families from this level of life” — she placed her palm at waist level and then raised it to her chin — “to this level of life.”

Vision 2016 input meetings will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 13 at Stall High and North Charleston High and at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at Burke High and West Ashley High.

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