Charleston County School District’s top priority is supposed to be literacy, but its budget doesn’t include any new money for key programs to help struggling readers.

Literacy academy results

The following are results comparing literacy academy students’ results on the Measures of Academic Progress test from the beginning of 2012-13 to the end of the school year.

The following statistics show the academy/grade percentage of students scoring below the 25th percentile in fall of 2012 and spring of 2013.

Fall 2012 Spring 2013

Primary Grades Academy (grades 1-3) 72.7 percent 44.7 percent

Middle Grades Academy (grades 6-8) 78.3 percent 52.4 percent

First grade 57.4 percent 31.6 percent

Second grade 87.3 percent 54.2 percent

Third grade 78.2 percent 53.1 percent

Sixth grade 84 percent 58 percent

Seventh grade 74 percent 56 percent

Eighth grade 78 percent 42 percent

Source: Charleston County School District

This is the first year the county school board hasn’t put additional funds toward literacy since making it the No. 1 mission. The district’s general operating budget grew $26.2 million to $383.2 million this year. The district instead will put new dollars toward growing its early childhood education classes, and Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley said she sees that as a different way of expanding literacy support.

“It’s not that I’m backing off on literacy,” she said. “We had to be strategic, and the main point is early childhood education is about literacy.”

The school board wasn’t interested in a tax increase, so district staff had to work within a certain amount, McGinley said. She decided it was more important to try to prepare 4-year-olds to be ready for kindergarten rather than add remediation programs for fourth- and fifth-grade students, she said.

“We’re taking millions of general operating fund dollars to support (literacy academies), and it’s working,” she said. “We’re building that foundation in the early elementary years.”

Making it work

The board passed the new literacy policy in 2010 after a series of Post and Courier stories revealed the serious illiteracy problem in local schools. At the time, nearly 20 percent of the county’s ninth-graders read on a fourth-grade level or worse. That improved to 13.1 percent last year.

The policy required the superintendent to develop and implement a district-wide literacy plan that identified and helped weak readers. McGinley created literacy academies for the district’s worst readers, and the policy prohibited promoting any student who refused to participate in those programs.

The district’s investment in the academies has increased to $7.5 million this year, and the academy’s results from the 2012-13 school year are positive. The academy’s students had better reading scores by the end of the year, with the amount of improvement varying by grade.

“The only thing we’re going to do is strengthen and refine our programs, and so far, it has paid off,” said Betsy Reidenbach, the district’s director of its literacy-based learning division. “We’re only going to get better.”

This past school year, the district’s Primary Grades Academies operated in all 47 elementary schools serving grades K-3. One to three students were pulled out of their classroom daily for 30 or 45 minutes of intensive reading instruction, depending on their need. That program won’t be changed substantially in 2013-14, other than to find ways to increase parent involvement in teaching students to read, Reidenbach said.

This year was the first that its literacy academy students took the state standardized PASS test, and officials are expecting to see a strong jump in scores.

“I don’t think we’re going to be disappointed,” Reidenbach said.

Middle Grades Academies served grades six through eight in every middle school, and it works similarly to the primary grade effort except student groups were larger and the instruction took place during a specific period, rather than students being pulled out of other classes.

The middle grades academies have been the least effective of its interventions, but Reidenbach said changes in its design this year led the district to exceed its goals for student improvement.

Committed to literacy

Fourth- and fifth-graders aren’t served in the literacy academies, and Reidenbach had suggested adding more literacy teachers in those grades. Although that won’t happen this year, Reidenbach said their teachers will receive training on how to work with struggling readers.

She supported the superintendent’s decision to put more resources into child development classes because it’s important to give those students a good literacy and language development foundation, as well as teach them math and social and emotional skills.

“It’s going to make their chances for achievement so much greater as they move through,” she said.

Officials have tried to boost reading instruction for all students, such as mandating that teachers for grades K-2 have either a master’s in reading or take 60 hours of professional development in literacy.

“We want them to be strong teachers of reading, and the past three years, we’ve worked hard to provide them with support and it’s paying off,” Reidenbach said.

Chris Fraser is one of two current board members who helped pass its literacy policy in 2010. He doesn’t think the district’s emphasis on literacy is waning but rather is shifting to younger students to help prepare them to read. He compared it to treating the cause of an illness rather than its symptoms.

“We’re trying to put ourselves out of the business of doing remedial work,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to have special academies for reading if it’s done the right way.”

The board no longer is trying to justify its literacy academies; those are expected to be part of the district’s overall work, he said. The literacy programs have evolved since McGinley started them a few years ago, and this is the latest iteration, he said.

Jon Butzon, the former leader of a now disbanded Charleston-based education advocacy group, said the district often tries new initiatives with a “let’s try something new and hope we get lucky” attitude, and that may be why early childhood education is on its radar so prominently.

He doesn’t think the literacy academies are working because the district hasn’t said how many of those students were reading on grade level at the end of the year. Still, he’s interested to see students’ reading test results this fall. If those show strong improvement, perhaps it makes sense to intervene earlier, he said. If not, then it raises other questions, he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s the quality and skill of the classroom teacher,” Butzon said. “And if it’s not happening ... we have to talk about why. We have to do it in spite of kids being poor, or living in public housing or their history ... We can’t use prior failures as excuses for current failure.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.