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Special Report: Forgotten South Carolina

SUMMERTON — Walk into Scott’s Branch High School here and what normally greets visitors at most high schools isn’t in sight — that big display case full of sports trophies won by the school’s athletes.

Oh, it’s there all right, but halfway down the hall, discreetly turned flat against one wall.

What greets visitors instead is the school’s Palmetto Gold plaque award for closing the achievement gap, the school’s Award of Excellence from the Dukes Foundation and a bulletin board cheering students on for their academic achievements and standardized tests necessary for college.

For years, Clarendon School District 1 languished at the bottom of the state’s performance ladder, but that has changed in recent years.

Now, the state Department of Education ranks the district as the second-best-performing when the impact of poverty is taken into consideration. And when ranked on performance alone, it’s in the top third, higher than Charleston County and on par with Greenville.

Making bad schools good

A plaque near the entrance to Scott’s Branch High testifies to the special, historic position the school district holds. It honors the Summerton residents whose fight to win equal treatment for black schoolchildren led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended public school segregation.

Today, the high school remains almost as segregated as the all-black school it replaced after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Whites bailed from the state’s public schools in the 1960s and 1970s, and in many rural districts few ever returned.

Blacks account for 97 percent of Clarendon District 1’s students, with an almost equal percentage counted as poor.

Those two percentages typically predict failing academic performance.

So what is the district doing that makes it perform so much better than what would seem to be its equal in the Allendale County School District, one of the state’s lowest-performing districts by almost any measure?

Both districts rank among the top four in spending per student. They receive extra state and federal money to compensate for small local tax bases and little economic opportunity.

So money isn’t it.

Both school districts are small, Allendale with about 1,400 students and Clarendon 1 with under 900. Both student bodies are almost all black. And the number of students from poor families exceeds 95 percent in both districts.

So why the dramatic difference in their academic performance?

Take a look back inside the entrance hallway at Scott’s Branch High. Look around for the giant framed photograph of the school’s state championship 2008 football team surrounded by adoring teachers and administrators. It no longer hangs prominently anywhere in the hallway.

District Superintendent Rose Wilder ordered it moved to the gym area. “Sports are secondary here. Where your eyes go, so goes your energy,” she said.

Wilder wants students focused on education and their future. She and her staff make sure students know that they are expected to do well and that it’s up to them. It’s their responsibility. “You are here for a purpose, and it’s to get an education,” Wilder said.

From the first day of classes, teachers drill that message in. They urge students to work hard and offer them the help and encouragement they need to master courses. For example, every student is assigned a teacher as a personal mentor to provide extra support and encouragement.

One prominent poster sums it up: “Good character makes great winners… respect… cooperation… integrity… self-discipline… positive attitude.”

Cory Leonard, 16, a junior tailback on the football team, who was sidelined by a leg injury last season, holds a 3.4 grade point average.

From football he knows the importance of discipline and focus. He likes seeing that self-awareness spread to the whole school. “I feel good about it. Here we actually learn.”

Ethel Canty, a 17-year-old senior, also with a 3.4 average, agrees with Leonard. A painting she perfected under the tutelage of the school’s award-winning art instructor, Tarleton Blackwell, was selected last year for display in the Cannon House Office Building on the national Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C.

Blackwell expressed pride in Canty and joy in watching her skill with a paint brush develop under his supervision. “I’m blessed to be here,” he said.

Canty enjoys it as well. And her success shows in the scholarship offers she already has received from Columbia College in Columbia and at USC Sumter. But her heart is set on attending the highly rated Art Institute of New York City, something she might never have dreamed of without the encouragement she receives at Scott’s Branch.

“They want the best for us,” she said of her teachers and administrators.

Clarendon County sheriff’s Deputy George McConico has been the resource officer at Scott’s Branch High for six years. He has seen the students change, and smiles at the eerie quiet in the once rowdy hallways between classes.

“I’ve been seeing the atmosphere change as far as studies, academics, performance and behavior. Attitudes have changed. The children are disciplined and problems have decreased.”

As McConico spoke, students quietly filed past him near a wall with a bulletin board filled with the college acceptance letters of several students. Last year the school’s senior class of about 60 won $2.1 million in college scholarships.

‘It’s not just money’

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais loves Wilder and other district superintendents like her. They give proof to his controversial contention that the real problem with many of the state’s failing, high-poverty schools is not lack of money from the state.

“To blame poverty is a cop-out,” Zais said. The fault for student failure does not lie with the students or parents, he said. “The difference is the performance of the administrative team. ... Poor administrators tolerate ineffective teachers.”

Zais praises Wilder’s performance in Clarendon and the performance of several other high-poverty school districts, such as Darlington, Calhoun and Barnwell 19, which he described as “knocking it out of the ballpark.”

Wilder agrees with Zais that creating an atmosphere of high expectations and success for students, teachers and administrators sparked much of the turnaround at Clarendon 1. It also generated increased stability and excitement among teachers and administrators.

Rick Johnson’s bass-drum voice can he heard from down the hallway even with the door shut to his math classroom. Wilder lured the former private business management and finance wiz out of retirement to take a stab at teaching high school math.

He once taught at Indiana University and always wanted to teach, but the pay didn’t rise to the level he wanted, so he stuck with private business until retiring recently to Clarendon County. With Wilder’s encouragement, he took the math teacher qualifying exam and passed it with no trouble.

“I like mavericks,” Wilder said of Johnson as she watched the first-year teacher with his class.

“You’ve got to know the rules,” Johnson told his students, reassuring them that math is not that difficult. “Don’t get confused. Don’t let the numbers confuse you.”

Then he asked different students what book they were reading, and told them he wouldn’t accept a simple one.

“Challenge yourself” he boomed. “Reach! If you can’t read, you can’t do math.”

Wilder voices pride at the district’s accomplishments, but said Zais makes a mistake when he says poor districts don’t need more state money.

Gov. Nikki Haley recognized that last month in her State of the State address when she called on legislators to work with her to find ways to improve education and increase help for poor districts. However, she declined to offer a plan or any specific ideas.

Wilder’s school district currently receives the sixth-highest amount of state money per student in the state, and got an infusion of federal money that will run out in a couple years. “I don’t know what we’ll do when that happens,” Wilder said.

Even with that money, she said, the district does not have the cash necessary to hire enough teachers for electives or advance-placement classes to further prepare students for college.

The district recently arranged for an advance-placement teacher in literature, but needs such teachers for several other disciplines. Recent studies have demonstrated that students who take advance-placement classes have a greater chance of getting into and completing college.

At the other end of the education scale, Wilder said the district only recently found enough money to hire a literacy coach to help the students who come to school ill-prepared to learn.

‘I can turn Allendale around’

Nevertheless, Zais insists that more money is not the answer. He points to Allendale County’s consistently failing schools, which spend the fourth-highest amount per student in the state, $15,790, and get the third-highest amount from the state per student, $7,506.

Only McCormick County, at $7,549 per student, and the state’s Charter District, at $7,894, get more state money. By comparison, Charleston County gets $3,836 per student from the state.

“Allendale proves it’s not just money,” Zais said. “They have the money to hire the best teachers in the state,” he contended. He pulled out a sheet of paper and scribbled some numbers that he said prove the school district misspends its money on administration. He said the district’s administrators receive an average salary of $92,000.

The problem in Allendale County is that the money doesn’t get to the classrooms where the district could spend a lot more to hire the best teachers, Zais said.

“You’ve got your priorities screwed up,” he said of Allendale’s school system.

Harold McClain served as Allendale County’s school superintendent for the past three years until he was fired Jan. 28 in a surprise move by the newly elected school board.

In an interview before his removal, McClain said Zais must have gotten his numbers wrong. Allendale’s teachers earn $42,700 on average, principals $77,600 and administrators in the district office $71,025, excluding his $110,000 salary, McClain said.

The Allendale School Board offered no real explanation for removing McClain, other than to release a one-paragraph statement saying, “The majority vote wished to move the District forward in a new direction ... To provide the best quality education for our children.”

Separately, School Board Chairwoman Wilda Robinson sent The Post and Courier another statement that she said might provide some indication of what led to the firing. The second statement had been publicly released in Allendale the same day McClain was fired. It referred to the district’s Jan. 15 loss of a $1.3 million, one-year extension of a federal School Improvement Grant. The statement said the district lost the money because McClain’s administration did not submit a plan that met the criteria for the grant.

McClain expressed shock at his removal, saying he felt he had set the stage for Allendale’s schools to reverse their downward slide.

McClain has been replaced by interim Superintendent Walter Tobin, who also serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees of South Carolina State University. Tobin, who has served as an interim superintendent for several other state school districts, said it appears to him that McClain had made “some real attempts to change” Allendale’s schools for the better.

He said he expects to remain interim superintendent through the end of the school year while the board looks for a new superintendent. In the meantime, he said, he wants to “bring some calm, and bring people together” in a school system that seems to have been “polarized over the years.”

Three years ago, McClain sought out the superintendent post specifically because he wanted to turn around the county’s failing schools.

At that time, McClain worked as a troubleshooter for the state Department of Education to help improve underperforming schools. He saw what happened when the state declared a state of emergency in Allendale County’s schools, and took control of the district in the summer of 1999.

The state returned control to the county in April 2006, citing improved student and teacher performance while under state watch.

After the state left, McClain saw the district’s performance plummet again, and he blamed the state. “They left without an exit plan, taking all of their experts and experience. The state did not build what could be sustained.”

McClain knows that poverty does not have to cause students to fail. He once worked in Orangeburg County’s schools and saw how progress was possible with high-poverty schools.

When Allendale lost yet another superintendent, McClain volunteered to take on the job with the 2010-2011 school year.

“I looked at Allendale one day and said, ‘I can turn Allendale around.’ I will do it given the time.”

He also knew time was not all he needed. He needed more money.

In its effort to provide for the school district, Allendale already imposes one of the highest property tax rates in the state. But the money from that tax, $4,651 per student, isn’t anywhere near enough to provide for an adequate education. Even with more than $11,000 per student a year in state and federal money, Allendale’s student performance remains near the bottom.

A revolving door

McClain characterized Allendale’s biggest problem as “missing human resources and a revolving door of teachers and administrators.” The district’s middle school loses half of them each year. And districtwide, one out of every four teachers leaves each year. That makes it almost impossible to build any consistency, McClain said. “You are starting back every year.”

Now, McClain has joined that revolving door. By his count he was the district’s sixth, and longest-serving, superintendent or interim superintendent since 2006.

To counteract turnover, and to attract high-caliber teachers, McClain had planned to offer signing bonuses and bonuses for high performance in lifting student academics. He also worked with consultants to help create an internal system to build talent and instructional leadership in teachers and principals.

To partially make up for the staff turnover and difficulty attracting teachers, Allendale County sought out foreign teachers through a federal program that allows school districts to recruit teachers from other countries. The teachers are allowed in on three-year contracts, which can be renewed.

Currently, 20 of Allendale’s 113 teachers come from other countries, mainly India, but also Romania, Mexico and Jamaica. Statewide, 271 such foreign teachers work in public schools.

In addition, by shifting money around, McClain created four new teaching positions, two teachers to work exclusively with children who are two or more grade levels behind, a math coach and a literacy coach.

One problem McClain hoped to cure with improved school performance is the loss of white students and the support and community involvement the schools need from their parents.

An estimated 400 white Allendale children attend private school or go to public schools in nearby counties. Some parents sidestep district attendance rules by purchasing land in other counties, a loophole allowed by state law.

That loss of white students remains a common problem for many poor and rural schools.

A step in the right direction

An indicator that some of the changes McClain made had begun to make a difference can be seen in the latest state school report card and the previous year’s. The district as a whole still ranks “At Risk,” but in the area of academic growth the district jumped from “at risk” three years ago to “Excellent” last year and “Good” this year. Those two grades show that the district is taking necessary steps to improve student performance.

Still, obstacles remain huge to the creation of a stable and quality teaching staff in an economically and socially challenged county. For example, Allendale doesn’t have a movie theater.

“We are not the most attractive of communities. People want a place to work, but they also want a social life,” McClain said before he was fired, adding to the instability problem.

Most of the district’s teachers commute from other counties.

Despite the fact that the district receives the third-most state money of any, McClain contended that Allendale needs more to help make up for its many disadvantages. For example, Allendale can’t afford to pay for any advance-placement classes and offers just one foreign language, Spanish, and only in high school.

Allendale is among the counties in the so-called “equity” lawsuit against the state that has been in the courts for 20 years. The suit argues that poor districts cannot provide students with the “minimally adequate education” that the state Supreme Court decided the constitution requires. A ruling by the state high court on whether the state needs to provide more to poor districts is expected this year.

“Equity is not sameness,” McClain said. “When it comes to education finance, one size cannot fit all.”

If the district received more state money, it might be able to prevent teachers from moving to districts with higher salaries. The average salary for teachers in South Carolina is $46,000, more than $3,000 higher than what Allendale pays on average, and Allendale’s average salary is $10,000 less than those in some of the state’s wealthier counties.

“True equity could eliminate that,” McClain said. “Money isn’t everything, but when you look at Allendale and other schools along the corridor, in order to attract and retain better teachers, money could provide an incentive that other counties don’t need.”