St. Helena community rallies for change at elementary school

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St. Helena community rallies for change at elementary school

By RACHEL HEATON
rheaton@beaufortgazette.com
Published Sunday, September 9, 2012   |  1207 Words  |  

After years of low test scores and failing ratings, it's time for change at St. Helena Elementary School, some community members say.

The school got an "F" last month when the state's new system of assessing progress toward federal accountability goals was revealed.

That "F" has parents, former teachers, a school board member and others calling for an overhaul. About 100 people turned out for a community meeting at the school in late August, and a former teacher has spoken out at the last two Beaufort County Board of Education meetings.

Some have suggested replacing the principal.

"When a team loses year after year, you don't get rid of the team. You get rid of the coach," Lillie Harris, who recently retired as a fifth-grade teacher from the school, told the school board Tuesday.

Principal Kay Keeler won't be replaced, superintendent Valerie Truesdale said, but she is receiving "executive coaching" two days a week, and the district has planned several other changes -- including capping class sizes at 20 students and increasing the amount of time struggling students are taught reading and math.

But board member Michael Rivers, who represents St. Helena Island, believes the district is spending more time making excuses for the struggling school than fixing it.

"If kids are not learning, that's not all the kids' fault," he said. "It means that someone is not teaching, and leadership is not doing its job."

POOR PERFORMANCE

St. Helena Elementary has struggled for years.

Since 2007, it's earned an "at risk" or "below average" rating on state report cards, which are based on scores on state standardized tests, student-teacher ratios, money spent per student, amount of instructional time and other factors. The school's growth ratings on the report cards have hovered at "average" or "at risk" during the same period.

But it's the "F" from the state's new rating system that has galvanized the community.

Though they're disappointed in the rating, Truesdale and Keeler say they're not sure why that has been the catalyst. But for Keeler the community interest is a silver lining. She said more parents are asking to volunteer and joining the Parent Teacher Organization and the School Improvement Council than in previous years.

"This has energized our school community and our parent community," she said.

In a school where 97 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, extra help is needed, and Keeler says it will make a difference.

Harris said the "F" was the final straw for her, and that could be why it's spurred such attention.

"It's been too long that it's been going on," she said. "I guess it's just been too long."

CHANGES PLANNED

A number of changes are under way at the school.

In an Aug. 21 presentation to the school board, St. Helena and four other schools were identified as "targeted schools," and Truesdale proposed several options in each school's "support plan." Other schools identified were Broad River Elementary, Whale Branch Middle, Whale Branch Elementary and Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary schools.

Among the changes for St. Helena are:

  • Capping class size at 20 students. Truesdale said Friday this had been done.
  • Providing more intervention and tutors for children struggling in math and reading.
  • Providing Keeler with "executive coaching" two days a week. Truesdale said that recently retired student services chief Cynthia Hayes will provide the coaching. Hayes will ensure that services, such as social work, home visits, food to get children through the weekend and more are coordinated at the school.
  • Providing after-school tutoring. Truesdale said the district has applied for a grant that would cover bus costs and teachers' salaries in order to give 250 of the school's more than 400 students extra help until 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
  • Truesdale said some of the problems at the school probably are due to budget cuts that had an impact across the district. Because of the cuts, the school lost some math and reading coaches and class sizes increased. Because of a transportation issue last year, students were picked up by buses before the end of the school day, cutting off 25 minutes of instructional time each day.

    In the future, she said, it's possible budget cuts won't be applied uniformly across the district. At St. Helena Elementary and some other struggling schools, cutting staff and resources isn't always a wise choice, Truesdale said.

    "It's not an overstatement to say this is a high-risk school," she said. "Services put there need to be there continuously. We can't go up one year and pull extra support. And a lot of extra support was removed from St. Helena."

    TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

    Both Harris and school board member Rivers say poverty and other obstacles the students face aren't an excuse.

    "I take it a little bit personal because they make it seem like with kids from St. Helena that poverty or crime is why they can't learn. That's garbage," Rivers said. "... That frustrates me because it seems to be an excuse legitimizing why teachers and the administration are not succeeding."

    Both Keeler and Truesdale said change won't happen overnight. Keeler said she hopes upcoming scores on the state standardized PASS test will show growth. She also pointed out that through the Teacher Advancement Program, an initiative combining focused teacher training with intense study of student data, students have made more improvement in one year on achievement tests than typically expected.

    Progress has been made, Keeler said, but it is often slow, taking three to five years in some cases.

    Truesdale agreed.

    "The effects of multi-generational poverty cannot be eradicated in a year," she said. "They didn't get this way in a year, and they're not going to get better in a year."

    But Rivers believes time is up and more dramatic action is needed.

    "How do you redeem that lost time?" he said. "The district keeps making excuses for Mrs. Keeler, saying, 'Kay has to deal with the poor kids that come from crime-ridden communities.' ... The school district is more concerned about protecting the principal than they are about protecting the children."

    Related content:

    St. Helena Elementary School's 2011 state report card

    St. Helena Elementary data on progress toward No Child Left Behind goals

    District targets five struggling schools for extra help to boost achievement; Aug. 21, 2012

    Beaufort County students continue gains on state assessments; Aug. 2, 2012