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The Beaufort County School District's three-year-old "extended learning time" program posted its best turnout last month.
Nearly three-fourths of the more than 5,000 struggling students told to report to school instead of taking a spring break showed up, district officials said.
But next school year could be the program's last, as the federal stimulus money that paid for much of the $2.5 million annual cost is nearly gone.
Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said she believes the district has enough money to continue the program through the fall at all of the county's schools. It will continue the program through the spring of 2012 only at the schools with the highest poverty rates.
The program allows elementary and middle school students not meeting grade-level standards in reading and math a chance to catch up with instruction tailored to their deficiencies. High school students failing a course can use the time to complete credit-recovery programs.
Truesdale said the program, which extends the school year by 20 days for some students, has jump-started learning for students needing the most academic help.
She added that the district is searching for grants to keep the program going, but she does not recommend the Board of Education fund it with local tax dollars not supplemented by other sources.
The district already anticipates a $6 million shortfall in this year's general-fund budget because of low tax collections, and is striving to hold the line on operating costs next year, she said.
Extended-learning time began in 2008, when the district added 20 days of instruction for students in grades three through eight who scored below basic levels on state-mandated tests.
The program was part of the district's plan to boost student achievement to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law.
It has since expanded to serve high-schoolers and students in kindergarten and first and second grades. Some schools also use the time to provide enrichment classes, such as ACT and SAT preparation courses.
This year, the extra days are split into four, weeklong segments. Qualifying students started school a week early in August and will stay a week later in June. Those students also came to class when their peers were on fall break in November and on spring break in March.
"We're trying to catch the kids during the school year when their academic needs or challenges are starting to show, and bolster them up quickly during the semester," said Melissa Sheppard, a district academic improvement officer who coordinates the program.
The district tries to provide smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction during the extra time, she said.
Board of Education Chairman Fred Washington Jr. reminded district staff at Tuesday's board meeting he wants to see evidence of extended learning's impact.
"I'm waiting for the moment when I can correlate the attendance and participation to higher scores and better behavior," he said.
Truesdale said an evaluation will be completed after this year's program ends in June. By then, the district will have two full years of data on student performance, she said.
Though the program's first year was in 2008-09, it has changed significantly. For instance, Sheppard said students weren't required to participate during the program's first year and not all grade levels were served. Most of the extra time was scheduled in June and not spread throughout the school year.
The district adopted a more consistent plan for 2009-10 and 2010-11, so that data will be more reliable, she said.
Truesdale said a preliminary review of last year's results indicated a reduction in the academic losses students typically experience during the summer months. She said it also showed students seemed to be improving faster than their past performance suggested they would. She could not immediately provide specific numbers.
Sheppard said surveys show most teachers believe the program is helping students.
"Right now, we're writing grants, and we're hoping we'll be able to scrape the funding together for it," she said. "I would hate to see this additional support and help not be there for the kids, for our neediest academic achievers."