LAURINBURG — In a three-hour retreat on Sunday, Scotland County Schools staff brought the board of education up to date on strategies in place to improve student performance.
Though the schools are ultimately held accountable for students’ scores on state testing each year, Superintendent Ron Hargrave said that the system’s focus is on the work done in each classroom well before those tests are administered.
“In order for us to make sure that students are learning, we need to know first of all what is it that students need to know, and then how we are going to teach that,” he said. “How are we going to know if they learned it? What do we do if they already know? What do we do when we teach it and they don’t get it? That’s the constant work that continues to go on in the classroom.”
The system’s curriculum superintendent, Valarie Williams, highlighted a few of the areas where the system has made progress in the last two years, including increases of more than 20 points in fourth graders’ language arts proficiency, fifth graders’ science proficiency, and high school students’ Math I scores.
Additionally, the system’s four-year cohot graduation rate is up by nine percenrage points and the number of Advanced Placement exams administered to high school students for college credit has doubled.
Areas for improvement include overall third-grade proficiency, as well as student writing skills.
“Our students can read the information, they can retell what they read, but they’re having major, major problems in the writing,” Williams said. “The discrepancy in proficiency scores between oral retell, at 87 percent, and the text reading comprehension, which is 30 percent, shows that Scotland County students are having difficulty and struggling tremendously with writing what they read.”
Auxiliary services superintendent Larry Johnson said that he and his staff plan to get ahead of students who attempt to drop out of school by tracking down those who were not in class on Monday. Currently, the system is looking at a 100-student dropout rate.
“We pull the list and say who didn’t show up, and how can we get out there and find those students?” Johnson said. “We have a few months to bring those students back before they count against us.”
The school system also plans to develop its teaching staff by creating an extensive support system for first-year educators to improve their experience in the classroom and encourage them to remain in the profession. According to human resources superintendent Cory Satterfield, the system’s turnover rate for first-year teachers is 40 percent, while 80 percent of beginning teachers who remain for two years remain with the system long-term.
Overall, Scotland County Schools’ teacher turnover rate has fallen from 23 percent to 18.9 over the last three years. The number of teachers leaving Scotland County Scools to work in another school system has fallen from 61 to 41 over a three-year period
“We want to reduce our teacher turnover rate by one percent annually, which is very, very difficult because of the threats that we have out there due to the state and what they’re doing to education,” said Satterfield. “That is a bold goal, but we’re going to try to do everything we can.”
New staff development measures will also be implemented to improve teachers’ ratings in the five effectiveness standards, including leadership, knowledge of the content they teach, and creation of a respectful environment for all students. In those five areas, teachers are ranked from not demonstrated to “distinguished.”
For 2013-2014, the percentage of teachers determined to be at least proficient in each of those standards ranged from 95.4 percent to 98.1 percent. The percentage of teachers rated “accomplished” ranged from 23.7 percent to 38.3 percent.
The system’s goal is at least a six percent increase in number of teachers rated “accomplished” or “distinguished.”
“We feel if we get them more training, they do more things, and we get them to accomplished, that’s also going to raise test scores,” said Satterfield.
In a presentation on the board’s roles, duties, and expected standards of conduct, board attorney Nick Sjoka commended the board for its accomplishments and the level of professionalism it has maintained over the last 18 months.
“I think it’s just important for you all to know the kind of rarified air that you’re operating in,” he said. “You all are operating at a high level.”
Since January 2014, the board has hired a new superintendent, reached a funding agreement with the Scotland County Board of Commissioners through 2018, and closed two elementary schools in the first phase of a district-wide consolidation plan.
“If you keep a focus on the kids, whether people agree with every decision that you make, or they disagree vociferously with some particular situation, if that’s where you’re coming from and you’ve established that whatever you do you’re going to do it from the basis of the best information you can get, you’re going to do it with integrity and you’re going to do it with transparency … we all can’t agree all the time.”
Finance officer Jay Toland made a few predictions regarding how public schools will fare in the still-incomplete state budget.
“There’s a lot of things going on, a lot of moving parts to that budget other than education,” he said. “So we eagerly wait to see what’s going to come out of it: are they going to support TAs, are they going to provide funding in a block grant?”
In a block grant, the school system would recieve a lump sum, with the decision of how to allocate it left up to the local school board. Regardless of the state’s decision regarding teaching assistants, the board has provided for the funding of those positions using fund balance this year.
“They just give us a pot of money and then we have to decide where all that money goes…. it won’t be looked upon that the General Assembly cut TAs,” Hargrave said. “They’ll say we gave you that money and then you decided you didn’t want TAs. Well, you couldn’t afford it because they didn’t give you enough money.
“The bottom line is, you’ve got all these things that you have to have money for, and if there’s not enough to go around you’ve got to decide what comes off the table.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.